Review: Alternative Lessons and Carols (Guildhall New Music Society)

This concert was posted on Youtube on the 2nd of December 2020 here.

The concert began with no less than a bang, with Erchao Gu's 'A virtual tour of a virtuous place'. A piece for vocal sextet set to the words of one of Rimbaud's Illuminations in which the author describes hallucinatory visions of an underground room. Right from the start, the voices' writing is complex and colourful. Voices, of all ranges and timbres blipping in an out, while others sustaining growing and dying lines, all unite in singing the first line 'Qu'on me loue' ('Let me rent'). When voices begin with more staccato articulations, the blank screen is now met with the lyrics displayed on screen. With the words not translated at first and only at that of the line’s last utterance before a change of lyrics, the beginning’s mystery was all the more satisfying. The black and white colours work well with the music’s complexity. However, when fonts began to be explored further, I found it sometimes confusing or redundant - the musical writing was authoritative enough to give sense to the words, not to mention the images, which I thought were a wonderful addition. The humorous side of some videos, such as a tweet by Trump and a Darth Vader toy during a ‘Star Wars-like’ moment, captured well the text’s hallucinatory element. What really stood out was the composer's talented control of the voices. The writing is confident, and voices are used to their full extent. Nothing was boring. And although a few issues with the text and effects confused me, this was only because of how powerful the music was. Perhaps most importantly, although being ‘trapped’ by the limitations of Covid, this piece worked as an online work. In all its wit and complexity, and albeit its often morbid connotations, it gave me a new hope for the future of contemporary composition.

Next, we heard poet and writer Clare Best’s first poem of three, ‘VII’. The poem talks much about fog, with the word repeated often. The idea of 'not seeing' and 'vapour' as well as the inclusion of a vast amount of contrasting elements such as the sea, fridge and keys was engaging and created a conflicting sense of what is real, not real, and overall mysterious.

Kit McCarthy's 'The Observatory' was next - a piece for (I presume) a selection of electronically distorted instruments (violin, trumpet and saxophone among others). The piece was accompanied by horizontal lines similar to what is seen on midi files. These lines worked well to give structure to the complex mixture of surrounding sounds. It began with a long violin note, establishing a centre of D. The violin's line was in a sort of ‘folky’ style, which returned in various places. What I found most satisfying was how although they played a large role in expressing different phrases, the timbres slowly lost their distinctive differences and instead created one, cohesive line. Although I had a bit of pain finding a larger ‘meaning’ (if there was one) to the piece, the sonic pleasure of it was enough to counteract any confusions. I particularly liked the subtle use of different styles, such as the trumpet’s 'military' style and the saxophone's 'carol-like' phrases. True to the music's natural flow, I did not even realise that the centre had changed to C near the middle of the piece, only to return back to D by the end. Most enjoyable about the piece was its stability amidst a complex and satisfying interweaving of lines and sounds.

Sam Meredith then presented 'Old flower' for speech and flute. The beginning strongly resembled Debussy's 'L'Apres-midi d'un faune'. Whether intentional or not, it set up a comforting and familiar setting. With its array of different techniques, the flute was used well to accompany the short text and further emphasise the fragility of the brittle flower so beautifully described. The piece was a short and refreshing, albeit still a melancholic, breath of fresh air, very aptly placed in the programme.

Next, an unexpected and very unique piece from Aurora Nishevki called 'Not my lover' for violin, piano and speech (words by Brian Smith). The piece was accompanied by a video of trains, which given their sounds' dominance in the piece’s beginning, absolutely deserved the title of instrument themselves! The beat of the train was mirrored by the piano, almost like a dubstep style. The violin morphs into the trains' sounds, creating a dark and atmospheric tone. The visuals quickly become more varied. We see people walking, in the pub, war planes and other more mundane sights. The instrumental parts were written impressively well. They satisfied both the criteria for accompanying background noises as well as complex foreground noises. They fit so naturally well with the rest that I forgot they were there. The text surrounded the topic of 'England'. It explored the ups and downs, the advantages and disadvantages and the achievements and shortcomings of the country in very vivid ways. Juxtaposition between the abstract and tangible was a returning theme which I enjoyed. I was not completely sure why the players and orator were needed to be filmed, however. The visuals and videos would’ve been far more powerful in accompanying the music and speech. This was a thought-provoking work which bravely explored topics most composers would normally shy away from and I commend the composer for this, as well as their extremely well written instrumental parts.

In the poem 'Ancient New Greek', poet Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh creates a rich world through deeply descriptive phrases. The story is inviting and illicits empathy on the part of the listener, furthering its emotional strength. The simplicity of the video (just a recording of Nazli reading it) was a sober contrast to the earlier works. It also furthered how powerful the text was in its own right. I enjoyed the poem’s narrative style and gentle lilting. It was down to earth, yet nevertheless revealed a depth of meaning and emotion.

'Keep Clear' by Pia Rose Scattergood began with a video of a London bus similar to the ‘boomerang’ style often used on social media. The video's editing and accompanying atmospheric sounds became hypnotic. With the whole piece only being a repetition of this video accompanied by a hairpin crescendo of edited voices, I believe more could’ve been made of the already established mood. The potential was great and much more could have been developed. Nevertheless, even if taken simply as it was, it worked relatively well as a short interlude.

Clare Best then returned with a second poem, 'Invitation to a Place East of Here'. True to her first poem's style, it explores a mixture of more abstract and tangible objects and concepts. The descriptions of landscapes were just as colourful and emotions evoked just as satisfyingly clear.

Alexandre Allix’s 'Piece for piano and solo voice' worked particularly well with the concert’s larger theme of carols. The harmonies were reminiscent of many used in Christmas songs (not that I could actually say what these even are). The voice’s sole use of the open 'ah' and ooh' vowels invite another Christmas musical tradition of religious songs. The piece was a warm joining of various Christmas musical styles – jazzed-up, sevenths and ninths-mad carols now common with popular singers and the chant-like singing we associate with the Church during Christmas.

In 'Usual Feelings' by James Allen, we hear the writer talk about various food related metaphors, accompanied by various images such as a lamp and other objects. The very literal explanations of objects were down to earth. However, similarly to Pia's 'Keep Clear' I felt that this poem's extremely short length was not warranted. The interesting world it established could’ve been explored further. Instead, the feeling I had just come to enjoy was immediately cut short.

Next, we had Audrey Wu's 'All I Want To Say', performed by Alice Hermand. This half-singing half-talking style was unique and a welcomed surprise. I enjoyed the idea of being accompanied by written manifestations of the words' intonations, but I believe it would've worked better as virtual words written on the screen (much like Erchao’s piece). Nevertheless, the choice of fonts and images were intriguing in themselves. The extremely abstract nature of the words was, however, often hard to take in. But I believe it would only be a matter of listening back to the piece to fully appreciate its density of meaning.

In following an already highly abstract piece, it was not easy to change mindset completely in order to thoroughly take in Mac Morris' poem 'Sharpshooting', in being quite intense in itself. I enjoyed the accompanying video's colour scheme and editing; it was unique and worked well with the voice's tone and words. The length was just enough to understand and accept the style and themes established, which although I did not completely understand at first, enjoyed in the end.

Alex Mills, Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh and Dimitrios Rontsis then presented 'Composition 2020 #5' – a lecture about La Monte Young's 'Composition 1960 #15'. I loved the fifteen-second inclusion of Elvis at the beginning - it really put a smile on my face! I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture style and the positioning of this work in the middle of the whole concert. The artists' personal discussions were inviting and refreshing after quite an intense first half. The discursive element of the lecture allowed me, as a listener, to personally reflect on what I had already listened to. I can’t deny that I was quite mentally tired and not completely able to concentrate on each of the artists' opinions, but the atmosphere it created gave a well-needed calm to the programme.

We then heard Omri Kochavi's 'Drusha' for piano. The inclusion of a purely instrumental piece was clever at this point, having listened to many spoken works up until then. I enjoyed the piece's stylistic stability, even though a range of techniques were used. The composer evidently had a strong sense of self and established character which was heard through the writing. I felt simultaneously engaged yet also able to relax.

We then returned to a poem by James Allen, this time called 'Handbrake Waltz'. I enjoyed this one much more than his first. It was more literal and linear than the other. But this was perhaps because of its better positioning in the programme, being directly after an instrumental piece. This time an underlying held note was added. This worked fantastically well with the spoken word, and gave a stability that the earlier poem did not have. I particularly liked the last line, 'The rubble of playtime', which left me with a very vivid image in mind.

Sean Norris then performed his piece 'I think that got a little out of hand (tidal obsession)'. The ‘colloquial-ness’ of the composition and accompanying video engaged me. Literally seeing the composer produce the sounds made me appreciate the noises simply as noises - this simplicity was refreshing. However, it was often difficult to hear the spoken text. But even then, I quite liked the tone of the spoken voice (even without hearing the words) accompanied by the other sounds. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the synthetic sounds and spoken voice. It worked well to give the work a conversational and inviting nature. Although a little to long for my liking at the time, I believe in another context where I could listen to it not in contrast with other pieces, I would be fully entranced.

Mac Morris then returned with the poem 'Obviation'. A very similar video was used. As with his first text, I enjoyed its eclecticism, and the short length worked well this time. In being of a similar style to his first poem, it was easy to get back into the atmosphere, which I appreciated all the more.

We then heard Zhuoer Zhou's piece 'Soap' for cello, violin and piano. I was not convinced by the musical style at first, and found it relatively generic in its atmospheric sounds. The consistency of the piano's hypnotic ostinato, however, helped to bring out the strings’ intricate conversations, which I came to enjoy more as it went on. Having played various new compositions in contemporary ensembles, I immediately recognised this as being a piece most enjoyable played and performed live, due to the physical energy needed to play the instrumental parts well. In this not being possible, the artwork instead helped to counteract this loss.

Sam Meredith then returned with 'Auriga' for violin, synth and voice. In using different instruments to before, the composer showed true versatility in using the chosen instruments’ full potentials. The initial black screen helped to establish the work’s tone. The music made me feel deeply connected to the spoken word, as did the red light. Sam yet again achieved a musically and stylistically confident work which mixed instruments and sounds accurately to create one, powerful sound.

We then moved to Maya Caskie's 'The falling Christmas tree song' for violin, cello, guitar and voice. The song’s popular style was a refreshing contrast and made the style all the more tender and unique. The visuals looked very professional which aided in creating a work evidently confident in its style. It was also nice to again have a literal connection to Christmas in the programme. The song finished rather abruptly, however, which I found disappointing due to its lilting and gentle nature being the attributes I liked most about it. Nevertheless, the song was altogether a beautiful breath of fresh air.

Clare Best then returned with her final poem 'The Offering'. I found this one a bit more playful, which was very appropriate after the previous song's lightness. Its short length aided in making the poem easy to digest and all the more powerful in its imagery.

We finished with Joanna Ward's 'I am hoping I don't miss you/I used to hide under trees', written for guitar, synths, piano, percussion, violin, flute, speech and accompanied by dance and movement. The sounds at first created were beautiful. Their combinations were soothing. This was a common feature throughout the piece which helped me to engage with each aspect of the work. I enjoyed the videos and breadth of different lights and styles, however believed some of the movements and dances would’ve worked better in person - maybe in a live outdoor concert? Of course, this was not possible, and what was done was the next best thing. If video was to be involved, however, a more 'film-esque' style, with a camera itself following the dancer’s movements (especially that of the dancer in the park) would’ve been interesting. The videos of Joanna, however, in the apartment complex, worked brilliantly as a homemade video. Impressively, despite these slight visual shortcomings, the music accompanying was so well written I almost didn’t realise its existence due to it because mixed so naturally in with the movements. The length of the work was warranted and dealt with extremely well. It did not seem to drag on and made use of every second to further establish while also confirming the piece's eclectic and complex style. I particularly enjoyed the use of the synth, which added a rather otherworldly colour in contrast to the acoustic instruments. The greens and blues of the park established a fresh tone. When the speech entered near the end, I immediately enjoyed its tone and intrigue, making it all the sadder that it finished so soon. The overlaying of various voices felt rich in potential, and I would’ve enjoyed further use of it perhaps throughout the piece. However, it was maybe precisely because of this limited use that made me enjoy it all the more. Overall, with its raw style and brilliant instrumental writing, the piece was a beautiful way to end the programme.

This was an intense, varied, complex and wildly ambitious programme which delivered nothing less than a masterful collection of sounds, images and emotions. Although at times so intense I found it difficult to concentrate on some pieces’ constructions, it nevertheless gave me the urge to further explore the composers featured. The works were well ordered, with well-timed moments of contrast. Although it was often difficult to link the theme of 'lessons and carols' while listening to the programme, it is now, with reflection, that the connections are beginning to appear. And what more could you want from a concert than a continuation of thought after it has finished? I would like to sincerely congratulate all composers and writers for their incredible works. And of course, commend Joanna and Harry for their hard work and fantastic concert. I encountered wit, complexity, happiness, melancholy and reflection in the space of only an hour and a half. This concert made me realise how possible it still was, during a pandemic, to explore, appreciate and create new works with as much, if not more, depth than those we used to see in person. And for this, I can only thank all those involved.

Rita has also written:

"Geotonality": Hearing Covid-19 Johannes Brahms / Symphony No.1 (1876) Schoenberg and Webern: Viennese Explorations Alban Berg / Altenberg Lieder Op.4 (1912) Richard Strauss / Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) East Meets East by Kroke and Nigel Kennedy Jacob Kirkegaard / 4 Rooms (2006) The Cycle: Why We Keep Coming Back Alban Berg / Lulu (1935) Music History's Indebtedness to Narcissism Flute in Prog Rock: Why so Popular? Ludwig van Beethoven / Symphony No.6 'Pastoral' (1808) Rubber Soul: Humour and Humility in a Time of Progress



Want to make a difference to the arts during these tough times? You can either donate an amount of your choice or become a patron on Patreon for as little as £2/month!