Imagination and experimental music

One of the concerts during Composer's Choice week at the National Concert Hall, Ireland, 27 March 2002 was that selected by Jennifer Walshe. Born in Dublin, Jennifer Walshe is currently completing her doctorate at the Northwestern University, Chicago, where she is studying with Amnon Wolman. This biographical detail is more than incidental to the concert of 27th March, for Northwestern University holds the 'fluxus' achieves, and the city has a lively experimental music milieu in which Jennifer Walshe has clearly become thoroughly immersed. For this was a concert deeply concerned with the John Cage and the relationship between imagination and music. The first item on the programme was Luciano Berio's Sequenza for trombone (1966). The performance of which was by John Kenny. The Cage connection to the work was explained in the pre-concert talk. In 1955 Cage had been unable to find a trombone player for an unconventional solo in his Concerto for piano and orchestra, and had called upon the services of a jazz player. Dempster, a trombonist in the audience for the concert relished the eccentric use of the instrument and when, shortly after, he met Berio he encouraged the composer to write a piece for the trombone that also experimented with the unconventional sounds that the instrument could produce. The fact that there is humour in Berio's music was evident by Kenny's wearing of violent canary yellow waistcoat. Compared to the rest of the programme, this was a relatively conventional piece, even though at times the performer had to produce vocal sounds simultaneously with, and in tune with, the trombone. Kenny's vigorous facial and arm movements also served a purpose in that they maintained the tempo of the music through its stops and starts.

The second piece was Jennifer Walshe's own Dirty White Fields, commissioned for the concert. She performed the music herself, and indeed it is hard to imagine anyone else being able to do so, for it involved the use of a violin in a non-traditional way and extraordinary vocal sounds. Tampering with an instrument often seems like a relatively pointless activity. Why compose for the noises produced by the strings of a piano say, when a conventional use of the keys is capable of producing so much beautiful music? Walshe's use of the violin in an unusual manner was no gimmick though but essential to the music. The first movement relied on the inexorable soft rasp sound of the bow moving over the rim of the violin to create a fast tempo and to interact with the sounds of her voice, which were like that of the wind. Very rarely a pure note would sound momentarily from the violin, which gave the movement a sense of forcible containment of potentially explosive musical possibilities. The second movement was an intimate one, and Walshe's utilised the sounds that could be created by stroking the tuning pegs of the violin very effectively. A vocal sound that nearly approached a giggle fitted closely with its sense of ticklishness. The third movement was by contrast much darker and more sinister, again bowing over the violin created an underlying tempo, but this time an absolutely committed vocal performance evoked shivering and sobbing. The final movement was a dialogue between a sustained vocal sound and its similar counterpart from the violin. The whole piece was surprisingly musical given the unusual use of the violin, and the vocal sounds were totally enthralling as they were so graphic and bravely performed.

Now, probably like many readers, I had read about John Cage's Silence, 4' 33" (1952) but never actually seen it performed. Not many concert organisers in Ireland would dare program it. When you read about the work, you can't help but think that the audience listening to it are being made fools of. Or, more generously, that the idea is a joke in which the audience is invited to share. In fact, ironically, having seen it performed I now believe that 4' 33" is a profoundly musical work. John Kenny was the performer. He performed it in something of a pantomime style, at first at the piano, then with the trombone, play-acting as though on the verge of playing. This had the advantage of highlighting the fact that there is humour in the work, but it was mistaken to make too much of this. Nor did using the trombone to point out members of the audience that were making sounds really work. It is true that the piece can be interpreted as the audience listening to themselves, and if it was a test to see whether we could actually sit in silence for that time, then we clearly failed. But in both these regards I felt that Cage was being sold short, for the piece operated on another, more fundamental, level as well. In front of us was a performer and two instruments, full of potential life. When Kenny lifted his hands to play the piano, or raised the trombone, suddenly your imagination flared. The trombone was particularly appropriate in this regard as it is such a powerful instrument and all the time that it was poised to play, you couldn't help but feel that you were on the verge of hearing its huge voice ring out. There is an analogy here with quantum physics, just as the actual path of an atomic particle is surrounded by the possibilities of other paths, a fog of probability that collapses once the position of the particle is recorded, so with music the actuality of a sound is hedged with our imagination. If so much virtual, unfocused, sound is evoked by silence, what are our brains doing when we listen to music?

Next came George Brecht's Water Yam. Brecht was a member of the post-war 'fluxus' artistic movement. Knowing something about the art and theatre of these inheritors of Surrealism and Dadaism, I was on guard. Unlike Cage, many of the works of fluxus artists did set out to mock audiences - such as the infamous theatre piece where the curtain goes up and two audiences are looking at one another across the space. Brecht, himself a student of Cage, seems to have been interested in playing with the expectations of a concert audience, without going so far as his theatrical colleagues. Water Yam has some ninety cards to give a schematic direction to performers, but the order and interpretation of the sounds is up to the performers. This version kept intelligently to the spirit of the composition by utilising modern equivalents to the items called for by Brecht - such as a mobile phone, whose ring tone was the cheesy 'maniac' - and also by not falling for half measures of the events. So Natasha Lohan had her hair cut and Donnacha Dennehy ordered pizza, which came. It was an entertaining work, mildly amusing, but a long way short of 4'33" as a musical experience.

John Maxwell Geddes' composition for the trombone, Leo Dreaming, was the fifth work of the evening. Leo, he explained in the pre-concert talk, was a twenty-year-old cat, whose dreams were off days when he was a great hunter. The music was very much in keeping with theme of the evening as it required at times very unconventional playing by John Kenny, and yet all the sounds were absolutely appropriate to the music. At times purring slowly like an Australian didgeridoo, at other times working with the voice to produce harmonics and overtone, or menacingly hunting down fragments from Messaien's oiseaux, the trombone produced a celebration of Leo who was clearly a king amongst cats.

Jennifer Walshe's they could laugh smile (1999) for trombone and tape was commissioned by John Kenny, who performed it at the concert. After a certain amount of preparatory play-acting, which was redundant given the earlier part of the programme, the piece began to accelerate in power. The ominous growth of the tape sounds were accompanied by disturbing sounds from the trombone and the distressed breathing of John Kenny. The tension grew to a massive dark explosion of anger in which the performer swore violently at the top of his voice but could barely be heard over the crashing electronics. Again the commitment called for by Walshe produced really impressive results.

For Amnon Wolman's imaginary music (1999), the audience were given a sheet with two passages describing sound. We were asked to slowly read over the passages and think about the sounds evoked by the descriptions we were reading. Again, this was most definitely a musical experience. The fact that a whole concert audience were imagining the sound of waves on the shore, or a seagull, or approaching voices, meant that we were participating in a similar way to if those sounds were broadcast before us. It would have been interesting to experiment further with the event, it seemed to me that to try and stimulate musical imagination from written cues was in fact extremely hard and to move from the part of the brain processing language information, to the more sensual experience of music was going to require practice. However the piece had to be curtailed due to the restlessness of the audience, at least half of which did not join in the experiments, and indeed began whispered conversations.

Finally, the concert finished with Jennifer Walshe's unaccompanied vocal performance of The Beatles' Happiness is a Warm Gun. This song was performed in Walshe's typical vocal manner, so distorted by gulping breaths and concentrated sighs that it was hardly recognisable at times. Not only did the effect highlight how disturbing the song is, but it made the music much darker, much stronger, and much less easy to assimilate. The Composers' Choice series at the National Concert Hall in Ireland gives a valuable opportunity to contemporary composers to organise a programme. Judy Walsh and the organisers deserve great praise for inviting Jennifer Walshe to participate. She seized the occasion with both hands and the resulting concert was the most thought provoking and enjoyable that I've been to this year (2002).