Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Critical Thinking

Critical Distortions - Natalie Clein, Shiva Feshareki, Simon Fisher-Turner.
Kings Place, London, 2nd December 2008

‘Critical Distortions’ is a collaboration between three artists from what, at least on the surface, appear like very different worlds. There’s Natalie Clein, the 1994 Young Musician of the Year winner and virtuosic Cellist, Simon Fisher-Turner, the electronic sound artist probably best known for his work for Derek Jarman’s film ‘Blue’ and the young composer Shiva Feshareki, currently studying with Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Royal College of Music. I’ve been waiting a while for this intriguing proposition to arrive in London and the new Kings Place venue (lovely once you get into the music rooms but rather corporate and soulless in its lobbies) have opted to heighten the ‘look at us, we’re contemporary’ atmosphere by not providing any proper seating. There are beanbags but not nearly enough of them! The floor is hard! Mercifully the music, whilst certainly challenging, is not nearly so discomforting.

Shiva has, somewhat hilariously, been introduced as ‘The DJ’ in some of the publicity for these concerts, as if she is the first and only person to ever spin two records on a set of decks. Actually, tonight’s performance gives some credence to this implication, so inventively does Shiva transform her turntables into a credible musical instrument.

Her piece ‘Critical Distortions’ is the centrepiece of the evening and is an audacious work of real quality. Part of a series of compositions exploring the urban environment of bustling London, it is visceral, confident and aggressive but also rich in nuance and detail. Shiva places strong emphasis on honesty as the essential element of successful composing and performing. She admits tonight that, being human, a lack of subtlety isn’t necessarily negative. It is often good to say what we really mean and sometimes stark, undisguised language is the best means of communication.

Perhaps the piece is unsubtle in its effect, only in that the responses it inspires are as much physical and emotional as they are intellectual. The refreshing aspect of this approach is that there is clearly no need for one to understand the technical aspects of her compositional process – the conceptual and gestural aspects of it are far more significant. She captures the inherent links between experience, feeling, language and environment.

Having said that, it’s clear that the meticulous scoring and rehearsing that has gone into this project have paid dividends. There are some clear reasons why this piece and its performance have worked so well. There’s a strong emphasis on rhythm which makes the music both exciting and insistent. Perhaps more importantly, Shiva has given patient and careful thought to the range of sound and timbre that can be drawn from both instruments, and also to how the two can be most effectively integrated. Exposing that any dichotomy between acoustic and electronic is likely to be false is not a particularly new idea – but it’s rare that a pairing of seemingly disparate instruments manages to sound so convincingly like a dialogue. This is the sort of novel project that in lesser hands could be a total disaster, but Shiva and Natalie have rehearsed this piece so thoroughly that it seems like a real shared experience being communicated to its audience.

I’m not really an expert on classical music and this is the first time I’ve seen Natalie Clein perform, but her playing is a total revelation for me. She seems completely absorbed in the music. Her movements, somehow both completely relaxed and attacking, are transfixing and the sound produced by them even more so. Her reverent performance of part of the Kodaly Cello Sonata, which by virtue of its Eastern European sonority sounds very otherworldly and entrancing to my ears, is quite overwhelming.

Simon Fisher-Turner’s contributions are nowhere near as excoriating as his extraordinary Jarman soundtrack, rather more serene and hypnotic. This makes his role, in spite of the ubiquitous laptop, perhaps the most conventional and comfortable of the three. His duet with Clein starts off disconnected but ends blissfully entwined and somewhat catatonic. Clein seems slightly apologetic for Fisher-Turner and Shiva’s meddling with her tribute to Pablo Casals and the Bach Cello Suites but I felt they worked well by managing to combine playful irreverence with creativity and respect.

The world of contemporary music really needs this kind of boundary breaking, co-operative spirit. Musicians need to seek new contexts and pitch themselves outside their comfort zones if they are to develop further. The music must speak to broader audiences, without losing its artistry, and, through this process, direct listeners into new areas. I feel inspired to explore the worlds of Kodaly and Bach in a little more depth as a result of attending this unique performance.

If this wasn’t inspiration enough – we’re treated backstage to a private performance from Natalie and, once again, I walk out into London’s enthralling night feeling that little bit more alive.

The Price of Genius

Keith Jarrett, Royal Festival Hall, December 1st 2008

If there has been a common thread in much of the live music I’ve witnessed in 2008 – it’s been a strong sense of occasion, rarity and, along with that, financial expense. Credit Crunch be damned - Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder and, now, Keith Jarrett – they’ve all been event gigs with very high ticket prices (only Wonder failed to deliver value for money though – two out of three ain’t bad).

These days, Keith Jarrett is as much a self-proclaimed living legend as a widely respected pioneer. He performs infrequently and places heavy demands on his audience. Fortunately for him, they all adore him rather uncritically and are all too happy to be berated and chastised for using cameras or, heaven forbid, coughing. Coughing, apparently, is ‘a sign of boredom and inattention’. I suspect on this chilly evening in early December, it was more likely a sign of a common cold going around.

Even if Jarrett is basically right, his comments surely invite the response that it’s his job to sustain the audience’s attention. Now paid astronomical fees for these one-off performances, he’s probably earning twice as much in one night as many of these affluent punters earn all year (more like five times my annual salary). We have paid our money, and we surely deserve his respect as much as he deserves ours. No star is bigger than the audience that enables them to perform. This doesn’t mean that audiences should not be challenged and have their ingrained prejudices questioned – but that they should always be treated with respect. Also, younger musicians just beginning to build their audiences ultimately have to endure far worse – murmuring conversations during the performance, drunkenness, heckling. The odd cough is ultimately nothing much to worry about in comparison.

He can get away with this kind of contemptible and condescending behaviour because he is, even now, still the very best. Whilst the more hard-working Herbie Hancock has settled into a comfortable and repetitive routine, Jarrett still plays with a physicality and primal urgency that is basically sexual. All those grunts, moans and groans that his critics could never abide, whilst now perhaps less prevalent, are still there – accompanied by quite extraordinary physical gestures. He stands up when he’s especially impassioned, almost humping the piano. There really is as much physical ecstasy as cerebral effort involved in the process of making music for this man.

He has certainly stopped innovating now, performing exclusively with his Standards Trio and as a solo pianist. There have been no fresh contexts whatsoever for many years. Perhaps this is something to do with the effects of the chronic fatigue syndrome he endured for some time, or perhaps it’s inextricably linked with his very conscious rejection of the process of composition. Whatever the reason, this admittedly outstanding concert doesn’t offer much that’s new or unpredictable.

What it does achieve, with a generosity of spirit not evident in Jarrett’s irascible outward personality, is a very contrived but hugely satisfying summary of all the key strands of his long career. The pieces are short in comparison with his brilliant extended improvised concerts that are so revered (Koln, Paris, Bremen and Vienna especially) – but we still have the recordings for that. These concise expositions of his central concerns are expressive and move from the tightly controlled to the unrepentantly emotional.

Jarrett has said ‘the older a person gets, the more simplicity is profound – timing is the complex part of simplicity’. Much of this concert was an inspiring illustration of his point. He plays lush or impressionistic pieces with a very strong harmonic base and occasionally even indulges himself with a twelve bar blues. Yet it’s the way he develops these forms, with a language that is fluent both lyrically and rhythmically, that truly astonishes. He always imbues this flowing, spontaneous music with emotional depth, even at his most ponderous and reflective (as in the opening piece). The blues pieces he performs tonight border on barrelhouse boogie cliche at times (particularly the playful encore), but there’s always an intriguing ambiguity as to whether they are being played with a four to the bar or two to the bar feel, which creates palpable tension.

Elsewhere, there’s an example of his more atonal preoccupations, during which he also gets to exercise his considerable dexterity and four encores which offer concessions to other aspects of his work. There’s a rare outing for one of his most affecting compositions (‘My Song’) and a swooning, thoroughly charming take on ‘Over the Rainbow’. The audience are understandably elated and I’m left speechless with mirth at Jarrett’s pompous long bows and clasped hands act.

During this protracted ceremony I’m struck by the observation that even the very best, with all their ego and conviction, have some kind of vulnerability. After so many years at the highest level, Jarrett still needs this level of rapture and devotion from his followers. If it’s what he feeds on, perhaps this makes his snarly outbursts less objectionable.