20 February 2017

A Mainstream Concert With Attitude

Under a blazing sun and in the wilting mid-afternoon heat I made my way to a non-descript glass building, more a short corridor, stuck on a glorified traffic island in the middle of town.  With traffic surrounding it and a metro station underneath - its exits surfacing at either end of the building - this may seem an odd venue for a Sunday afternoon tryst. 

I do, perhaps, paint rather a gloomier picture than the reality deserves; this traffic island is, like so much else in Singapore, lush and green, and the carefully manicured lawns and neatly spaced rows of trees cleverly blot out the sound and smell of traffic and busy comings and goings of underground rail travellers, while the building itself is usually used as a kind of pop-up art gallery enticing the culturally-starved commuter to while away a few minutes during a break in the daily grind.  This was, however, a Sunday.  There were no commuters and there were no paintings on view.

So what was going on inside, carefully screened from any passers-by by means of comprehensive window blinds?  Why were I, and a handful of other individuals, all making our separate ways there for a 4pm assignation?  There were no posters, no notices, and no indication that this was anything other than a private, closed-door gathering.

It had all the indications of some kind of subversive meeting, and those who took the trouble to peer inside through a gap in the blinds would have seen a dozen or so people all sitting staring at banks of computer screens and associated electronic paraphernalia.  Was this a covert meeting of subversive agents who had hacked into the computers of government or who had placed secret surveillance equipment in the residencies of the President and of the Prime Minister?  It certainly gave off that impression. 

In fact, it was a concert. 

Why is it that concerts of contemporary music are so keen to pass themselves off as detached from the mainstream of culture and to surround themselves with an aura of mystery which effectively shuts out any but the select view who are “in the know”?  Are they imitating the profusion of underground and subversive arts groups which underpinned the cultural and social revolutions of the 60s? Do they think that by hiding themselves away and speaking only to the initiated, they are somehow demonstrating themselves to be at the cutting edge of revolutionary art?

Certainly nothing at this Sunday afternoon concert was in any way revolutionary.  It was, in fact, a mainstream concert in all but attitude, and one which not only deserved a bigger audience than it was aiming for, but appeared to get one too.  As yet more people sidled in the door, a hurried attempt was made to find more seats, and coffee cups, bags, masses of wires and computer accessories and empty boxes were hurriedly moved on to the floor to allow a wooden bench to brought into service.  In the end, our number probably was not far off 20, and there were even a few hanging around outside who might have been lured in had it not been veiled in so much pointless secrecy.

And what did we hear?  Half a dozen new works, some of which were very good, some of which were all right, and some of which, I readily confess, lay way beyond my comprehension.

The best were undoubtedly Peter Edwards’s Ssoonro receiving its first performance, and Per Magnus Lindborg’s Búgó Resonances which has been around long enough (it was premièred in 2002) to become something of a mainstream repertory work.  Singapore’s ubiquitous Keyboard-Player-Of-Infinite-Talents, Shane Thio, gave a strongly individualistic account of the Lindborg, and if the mute glissandi did not quite come off as intended, the fault lay in the piano rather than the pianist. 

Peter Edwards’s work had the huge benefit of bassoonist-extraordinaire Christoph Wichert to undertake the things with his bassoon Edwards asked, and he did so with a fluency and ease which belied the extraordinary nature of what those things were.  Scored for bassoon and electronics (the latter managed by Wichert by means of a foot pedal) this was a highly accomplished new work which effectively matched strange effects from the bassoon with the electronically created sounds to produce an intriguing duet where the two merged into one more often than I would have thought possible.  In his introductory talk, Edwards explained how he had checked with Wichert to ensure the bassoon techniques he wrote were entirely playable by any competent bassoonist on any bassoon, and this desire to create a work which can, like the Lindborg, survive beyond its first performance and its original first performers, is something not every contemporary composer shares.  Well-crafted in terms of structure, it had a fine sense of ebb and flow, and was just the right length to sustain and support its ideas without ever overplaying its hand.

Which is not something Jiradej Setabundhu was able to do with his new work, also scored for bassoon and electronics.  Here Wichert chased a graphic score around, the score visible via computer screen to the assembled watchers and listeners, and while it was an arresting idea which worked extraordinarily well in places, it went on too long and the novelty quickly palled.  Entitled Fire it seemed to represent the bassoon’s attempts to stamp out small bursts of flame as they leapt up unexpectedly from all corners, but one rather wished Wichert had, in the end, put the bassoon down and simply unplugged the computer.

Piano Peals by Joyce Koh Bee Tuan was, as the title suggests, a bell-like exposition of some ideas on the piano accompanied by electronics, and as such it was effective.  Again Thio was a suitably convincing deliverer of the musical ideas.  It just never went anywhere or developed any of its ideas.  It was so tempting to look again at the way Edwards had crafted his work so that it had logic and shape to define the sounds and compare this to the somewhat aimless meanderings of Koh’s piece.

We were told that one work billed as being a “Singapore Première” by Tan Tuan Hao, was not going to be performed “for technical reasons”; code, I assume, either for it not having been finished or for having proven itself to be unplayable. 

So, instead, we had two hearings of Rama, billed as a “World Première”, by Liew Kongmeng, one at the start of the programme and the other at the end.  In neither performance did it work for me.  Liew had written for a quartet of fine musicians - Thio and Wichert were joined by flautist Roberto Alvarez and violist Janice Tsai – and he instructed them to improvise freely against the computerised sounds he was manipulating.  That in itself seemed a pretty pointless exercise to me, and it did not help that, on the first performance, Liew stopped the players in mid-improvisation to tell them he had not been ready, and they had to start it all again; add to this one of the audience calling out to Liew and giving him instructions about how to proceed, and you have something which goes beyond informality and borders on the incompetence.

Had this been all the work was about, I might have enjoyed the effect of four excellent musicians dreamily improvising away to a schedule of noises from the computer.  But this was not what the piece was all about.  Liew had instructed the audience to take out their phones and access a website, the address of which he put up for all to see.  (Said website had about the most complicated address imaginable, comprising random numbers and symbols.) He then told them that at this website there would be some buttons with which they could alter an image which was presented on a computer screen in front of the audience. 

Now, I have to confess to having lost the plot at this stage.  I routinely turn off my phone when I attend a concert, and to fire it up not only takes time but causes noises to emerge; so I chose not to.  On top of that, my phone’s battery life is not infinite, and with a further appointment that evening, I decided I needed to preserve the battery in case of later necessity and not waste it playing online games with others in the room.  So I am in no position to judge the effectiveness of this aspect of the performance.  But from where I was sitting it seemed that the image (a blob) responded without any obvious association to the music or from what the phone-merchants were tapping into their devices – more than one of the audience was seen shrugging shoulders as a repeated jab at the button yielded no affect at all to the blob on the screen (and in any case after the false start Liew had forgotten to put the image back up on the screen).

I am excited and enticed by multi-media (or at least, duo-media) presentations provided the media are complementary.  This just seemed as if the audience was being given an online game to play while the music sounded, and if there was a connection, I am afraid it passed me by.

That issue aside, I am enormously glad I made my way to this secret location and indulged in this subversive bit of cultural elitism.  I only wish these composers were more happy to share their work with the wider world and not feel that they need to try it out in semi-private conditions first of all; this was generally much better than that.

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