Monday, June 21, 2004

Random Beauty

I sought out beauty today*, travelling to the ‘Sequenza and the Artea Quartet’ concert at the Royal Academy of Arts. C was going and it sounded like something that we would enjoy – after all, how can you go wrong with classical music?

....welllllll, it can be modern classical music for one.

4 young things in suitably dark attire took the stage and – in a flutter of seriousness befitting gouty men 3 times their age – began the first piece, ‘String Quartet’ by Philip Venables.

You know you’re in trouble when the tuning was more melodic than the performance.

Remember The Music playing in That Shower Scene from That Hitchcock Movie? Remember the music from ‘Jaws’? I did when I heard this, because it essentially sounded like a rap remix of the two. (No, I’m not exaggerating – I leave exaggeration to the times when I’m talking about the sharks I caught off Perth’s coast one weekend…they’ve steadily grown from 2 foot to larger than a Cadillac.)

The sounds were intentionally random, but they teased you. You thought that perhaps you could catch some pattern or latch onto a sound and follow it through – then it was completely cut off by a violin screech so high and so loud that you could actually see the rippling shudder of discomfort from the audience.

Tortured chords – sometimes beautiful – always murdered by the surrounding cacophony emerged to give the audience brief hope, some melody, some beauty to latch on to. These respites from the overall horror were fleeting – as was my attention.

As if on queue, all three of us hunted pens and began scribbling frantic notes to each-other. I knew I was in for a rough ride until the Stravinsky later in the concert, so settled in to write this blog post (no need to make it a complete waste of time).

Venables himself led the orchestra onto the stage for the second piece. He took the opportunity to explain what it was that we had just heard. (New from the RAA! Music so darned incomprehensible that it needs freakin’ subtitles!).

The rabble that had followed him onto the stage included :
- A girl intent on showing us that she could have been a plumber’s assistant through the subtle and post-modern use of too-low-slung-hipsters.
- Another girl who was too damn cool for this whole classical music gambit and would prove it to us by having a crop-top under her too small suit jacket, a pudgy little belly hanging out, piercings galore and hair gelled at every angle bar ‘down’.
- The flautist in an exquisite black gown…and sequinned red shoes.
- The singer, a barely groomed urchin of a girl whose fuchsia, pink and orange dress could have done with some serious ironing.

Am I being a purist? Perhaps a little. There are certain standards that an orchestra should maintain – some decency of appearance. Respect goes both ways.

He spoke about ‘chopping’ bits and pieces together, he spoke about inspiration, he spoke about ‘layers’. He smiled an awful lot – the kind of smile you see on a kid explaining why the hell his hand is stuck in the cookie jar in the first place. I wasn’t quite sure what the sneering little gimp wanted from me – adoration or for me to laugh along at his little joke on the world.

He finished by stating that the Stravinsky ‘Pastorale’ would be ‘…just…well…nice!’ compared to his music. He gave the imploring look of one fishing for a compliment. What the hell were we supposed to do? Stand up and shout:

“No, no, Mr Venables – I want to hear more of your music, I do. Just let me readjust my skin – it seems to be crawling its way to the exit.”
He also took the opportunity of explaining the next piece to be played, Luciano Berio’s ‘O King’. Mentioned something about the ‘tranquil surface’ of the piece being ‘almost unnoticeably disturbed’ by the piano.

The ‘subtle’ piano sounded like an overweight cat with distemper suspended from the ceiling by a bungee cord was landing on the keyboard at unfortunate moments.

What talent the flautist had was drowned out by the random screechings of the rest of the orchestra.

As for the role of the singer, well, that’s an interesting one indeed. It seems that ‘O King’s lyrics are in fact simply the words “O Martin Luther King” sung very slowly. Once. Vvvvvveeeeeeeerrrryyyyyy ssssslllllllloooooowwwwwwwwllllyyyyyyyyy.

Oh yeah – kwality with a capital ‘k’ there.

The brief break as the stage was reset for the next piece (Venables’ ‘I Fed My Wardrobe to the Night Wind’) was a welcome respite. The silence was blissfully harmonious.

Phil certainly fed his wardrobe to the night wind. The wind let out an almighty belch. Phil took it down verbatim.

There was some random melody to the piece, but by this time I wasn’t sure if I would latch onto ANYTHING after being battered by the beastliness of it all. The piece was relegated the place it deserved in my attention – as background music to my frantic search for a new pen as the venom had run out of the first.

When a piece of good classical music starts, I feel my entire body relax. I exhale as I settle into the luxurious cushion of sound that envelops me.

When this tripe started, I realised that I had been holding my breath in anticipation – and all I wanted to do was take another sharp breath in as a buffer to the sound. My neck was tense, my shoulders were tense, my calves were knotted as if my entire body was poised to sprint the hell out of the hall.

It ended mercifully quickly; all we were left with was one….more….piece…..of …..trash until I could hear something composed by a man of any measurable talent. (Although Venables DOES have talent – it’s quite difficult to make completely random sounds, as we found on the way to the tube when we tried to emulate what we had just heard.)

The last test of my patience was Luciano Berio’s ‘Opus Number Zoo’. Four musicians had been planted in the audience. They donned feathered masquerade half-masks and jumped up on their seats, barefoot. They began to make animal noises. I realised I was grinding my teeth.

There followed a drawn out pantomime with wildlife themes, a little bit of instrument playing, a whole lot of vitriol-filled-poetry spitting and – somehow – an anti-war message weaved in with all the subtlety of a drag queen at the Mardi Gras.

I was particularly offended at the players stalking the audience, using their instruments to emulate rifles. Blatantly giving menacing looks and shoving the instruments in the audience’s face. As I said, subtle.

So I had paid my price, Stravinsky was next.

What a difference!

Although not my favourite composer, it was a surprising pleasure to listen to the singer. (A soprano! Who would have thought, given her shocking ill-use in the last set?)

Suddenly the full, rich, disciplined voice was released. She stood differently, her shoulders back. She looked (and sounded) like a magnificently talented individual instead of the seeming street urchin reedily gasping out nonsense earlier.

She made an absolute dog’s breakfast of the Russian pronunciation in the lyrics but it didn’t detract from the piece terribly. I suspect that no-one else in the audience was really the wiser. In fact it was fascinating to see how she broke up the words. The music was Japanese-influenced and she broke where the music did. The overall effect was a strange ‘Japanisation’ of the Russian words into short vowel-ish sounds. Sometimes, though, she hit it – and when she did it was worth all the rest. Perfect.

So I didn’t find beauty in any quantity at the concert, certainly not enough to give satisfaction.

We headed home (via M’s office as he was on call and the Paris server had decided to save him from the last bit of the concert). We all had dinner at the office’s cafeteria, watched a bit of TV, fraternised with the night shift, had a couple of laughs. Heading home, we agreed that the latter bit of the evening took most of the sting out of the disappointment of the former. I had pretty much stowed the whole thing away as a C- on the report card of the evenings of my life.

Deciding to run down the escalators to get some nervous energy out, I reached the bottom and suddenly, jarringly, stopped – as had many others.

On the concourse separating the two platforms was a man with a violin playing the third movement of ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’.

He played so beautifully, so precisely. The glorious sounds echoing off walls – staving off the insipid announcements about not leaving baggage unattended and the thundering roar of arriving trains. The passion for this music was evident in the way his whole body moved, in the tension of his hands and fingers, echoed on the involuntary expression on his face. This was what those young players were mimicking so badly. Passion for music isn’t something one puts on like a morning suit – it is something that one lets out. It’s a radiance, not a scowl.

Leaning against the coolly tiled wall of the underground, I listened to the kind of music I had been begging for all afternoon just handed to me randomly in the most unexpected place. M and C caught up with me and soundlessly stood next to me, listening as well. We stood though a couple of pieces, exchanged expressions of surprise at his talent, dropped some money into his case and caught our train.

I stood in the crowded, airless carriage and closed my eyes as the train jolted on its way. I replayed the music for myself, extending it from my memory of the piece, enjoying it again and again. I think I grinned a bit much, people were looking at me.

I walked home with a smile on my face.

* Written on Friday, typed out today in between packing everything to move house.

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