Saturday 19 January 2019

Esfahani - Rasmussen, Berio, Srnka, Cage, and Abbasi, 17 January 2019

Milton Court Concert Hall

Sunleif Rasmussen: Quadroforone no.1 (2018, world premiere)
Berio: Rounds (1965)
Miroslav Srnka: Triggering (2018)
Cage: HPSCHD (1967-9): 'Solo VII'
Anahita Abbasi: Intertwined Distances (2018, UK premiere)

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
Electronic Music Department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (electronic realisation)

Images: Mark Allan/Barbican

Now this is what I call a harpsichord recital programme. We have all the time in the world to hear more Bach, Rameau, Byrd, et al., and shall very happily do so. But what could be more important than to establish and, just as important, to strengthen the instrument’s standing as an instrument of the present? This, moreover, was what I should call a harpsichord recital performance too. In such a situation, one can all too readily take virtuosity and musicianship for granted, concentrating, as is only natural, on the music ‘itself’. It may be unnatural, but it is also unfair, for nothing does new music a greater service, alas, than well-meaning yet incompetent performance. Such were the circumstances in which Pierre Boulez founded the Domaine musical. Let us steer clear of the cul-de-sac of ‘discipleship’ and say that Boulez has many successors. Mahan Esfahani certainly took his place among them in this Milton Court recital.

Sunleif Rasmussen’s Quadroforone no.1, a Barbican commission, received its world premiere. It is intended to be the first – as the numbering may have implied – in a series of four pieces that will set a live instrument against recorded, transformed sounds of itself. Ironically, or perhaps not, my first impression, prior to hearing any electronic transformation, was the unadulterated sound of Esfahani’s instrument: very much a modern instrument, in a grand line we might trace back at least to Wanda Landowska. What struck me throughout the twenty minutes or so of the performance was above all a sense of material turning around, not just in the spatial realisation, although that must have played a part, and of never quite repeating: a spiral, then, at least to this confirmed, even obsessive Hegelian. Electronics conveyed a sense, almost old-fashioned, of a round: interesting, and perhaps noteworthy, that that rather than ‘canon’ was the word that first came to mind. Confrontation and integration alike between solo instrument and electronic at times suggested a reinvention before our ears of a Baroque concerto. Then came a slower section, apparently, according to the programme, entitled ‘Nocturne’, in which a duet between hands, between manuals, co-existed, indeed interacted, with duetting between soloist and electronics. There was a sense of unwinding: again circular, spiralling, but downwards. Gathering pace once again, upwards (even when not in pitch), the music arrived at a final section, seemingly going nowhere but going nowhere interestingly. Harmonies and hierarchies of hearing continued to reproduce themselves, albeit with ever greater difficulty, until – nothing.

Luciano Berio’s classic Rounds followed, our early music for the evening. Square notes and round notes, turning the page around, upside down too: it emerged in contrast very much as a successor to, and/or precursor of, Rasmussen’s piece. The delicacy of playing and writing, silence included, registration changes telling, offered a keen sense of the ludic. But if procedures were audible – rightly, helpfully audible – they were never the music ‘itself’, any more than in Berg. Wit of work and performance alike proved fleeting in the best sense.

Miroslav Srnka’s Triggering appears to be relatively scant in its notation. (I am judging simply from Esfahani’s typically engaging, informative spoken introduction, since I have seen the scores for none of these pieces, save the Berio – and that many years ago.) About 85 per cent, we were told, of the instruction to the performer is in pitch classes alone: time or better times, central to the composer’s conception, may in his words, be ‘political, social, private, metaphorical, sporting, humorous, existential, climatic’. In this piece, he attempts ‘to construct all these different times – the instants and the betweentimes – until the mechanism of playing dissolves and the times change in nature.’ That ‘instant’ lies between the pressing of the key and the plectrum plucking the string: very much, then harpsichord music. Electronics come later – in the guise of e-bows attached to the strings of a second harpsichord – but even in the first of the eight short movements or sections, ‘Digital Wounds’, the digital binary being one of either plucking or not plucking, the low pitches speak in a fashion that does not sound entirely un-electronic; or so, at least it sounded in performance and listening. Esfahani’s extraordinary virtuosity, first over two manuals, and even over two harpsichords, was very much part of the theatre, but this was a theatre of musical drama, no ‘happening’. Major scales in ‘Major Rain’ again played with our notions of what was predictable: a connection, surely, with Rasmussen’s piece. We more or less ‘knew’ what would happen, but never quite: how extended would it be? In which direction would the ‘rain’ fall? What would the note values be? In sum, this seemed a highly visual work, in an almost programmatic sense, albeit for a digital, video age. Electronics came to evoke the unearthly, ‘historical’ world of the glass armonica, until work and performance alike subsided into silence – and, as the lights went down, darkness too.

John Cage’s ‘Solo VII’ from the installation, HPSCHD, is still more scantily notated – or rather not notated at all. His instruction is simply: ‘Practice and/or perform any composition(s) by Mozart. Amplitude and registration free.’ Esfahani chose the D minor Fantasia, KV 397/385g, and via an I Ching website, divined the parameters for questions he had previously defined. At which bar to start practising? Bar 57. At which point after the electronics had started, should he start practising (in multiples of ten seconds)? 110 seconds in. At what point should he stop practising? 2 minutes. And at which point after that, should he start to perform (in, if I recall correctly, multiples of thirty seconds)? 90 seconds. All the while, the electronic realisation by the Guildhall School’s Electronic Music Department, with its own questions and divinations, albeit founded upon the original, if you like ‘period’ electronics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, ran its course: an absolute, set duration. There was wit, for instance when Esfahani pencilled something in (a fingering?) whilst practising, but it was also deadly serious: as surely Cage must be. It never came across as a joke, as whimsy. I was led to reflect on ways of listening, of being able to listen, of not listening too. A wonderfully free performance of the Mozart Fantasia unfolded, insofar as one could hear, far freer in tempo than I should ever have dared imagine, let alone convincingly despatched. Was that the point? The very question seemed beside the point; so too, perhaps, did any point.

Finally, we came to the United Kingdom premiere of Anahita Abbasi’s Intertwined Distances, a commission from Esfahani himself. Here, the quadrophonic electronics are taken from an improvisation (if I remember correctly!) Esfahani gave as part of a recital in San Diego. The composer plays with conceptions of distance, writing: ‘According to Merriam-Webster, distance is a separation in time, an extent of advance from a beginning; and in mathematics it refers to the degree or amount of separation between two points, lines, surfaces, or objects.’ How do they intertwine, then? How did they intertwine in time? Figures sounded generative and (almost) repetitive, sometimes simultaneously, yet (again) never quite predictably. A quasi-Ligetian swarm arose as the work gathered pace– probably more my seeking for ways to describe than an ultimately meaningful comparison – out of which electronic sounds emerged, whatever the truth of the material’s actual origins. Distance and dialogue, dialogue in distance: such seemed to be the crux of performance and listening as activity. There was, without doubt, an extraordinarily inventive musical imagination at work, but it was never merely invention: it was a sonic and instrumental drama that seemed somehow to summarise, to extend, and quite properly to question many of the tendencies we had heard so far. This was, then, a programme and performance of harpsichord music for the here and now.