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The Old New Age

10/23/1998 -  

Friday 23 October 1998
Terry Riley Keyboard Study No. 2, Good Medicine, Misigono (UK premiere), In C
Terry Riley(piano), Pulp, Smith Quartet, guests

Saturday 24 October 1998
John Cage Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (extracts), simultaneous performances of Aria, Fontana Mix, and Concert for Piano and Orchestra (selected solos), Ryoanji, Four6
The Brood, Phoenix Dance, Sardono

The first two concerts in the American Pioneers season at the Barbican, part of the year-long Inventing America programme, present the contrasting grand old men of the American avant garde in comparatively accessible selections. Perhaps by design, both concerts also involved performers known mainly in non-"classical" music, and attracted an appealingly mixed and open-minded audience.

Terry Riley has all the characteristics of a guru -- knotted beard, wire-rimmed specs, beaming, benign demeanour -- and his music is a socially enjoyable expression of sixties transcendentalism. He characteristically combines forms similar to the classical Indian ragas with the familiar oriental modes and a blues-like structure based on a simple repetitive bass. He could also pass for a Unix guru, not just because of the beard and beam, but also because of his expertise in the architecture of complex systems from simple structures repeated at many levels. It is difficult not to like him, as a person and performer, and as a humane composer who sees the essence of music as "what moves you" and wants to dispense with everything else.

According to the programme, Riley was supposed to give an introduction to the concert, but he chose to let his performance speak for itself. Keyboard Study No 2 turned out to be an evolved version, with an introductory melody in a freer form, which developed into the blues-like study proper, a study in the basics of musical expression rather than piano or any other technique. Good Medicine, exuberbantly performed by the Smith Quartet, is a dance, actually a survey of dance idioms, converted to an out-of-kilter but forward-moving 10/8 time, done entirely in five with strongly divided beats. According to the programme, it's the dance of a mythical Salome to procure world peace from the forces of evil, but it stands on its own as a great romp through near and far eastern dances and Irish jigs and reels. (None of the quartet is called Smith, by the way.)

MisiGono, a new work, is an amusing variant of a danse macabre. It's based on the imaginary friend of Riley's young granddaughter who has died, but comes back to life when required (for example, for the premiere of the work named after her). The melodic beginning introduces a child's idea of mourning, and some spooky funeral music, with sinister use of hand-stopped piano wires sounding like something coming to get you. But the third movement, another orientalizing blues on a four chord bass, evokes the idea of a happy spirit in a slightly different kind of existence, and the fourth movement suggests an even simpler kind of contentment based on a single bass chord and a children's song, sung by Riley in a wrecked but expressive voice. (A nice touch: the line "Four, five, six, seven eight, nine, ten, Judaeo-Christian Mohamedan" trails off into a muezzin's melisma.) Each movement except the first stops dead in the middle of a phrase.

The second half of the concert was an hour-long (that is, shortish) performance of In C, the anthem of 1960s shared consciousness. Jarvis Cocker took an infinitesimal bow at the end, but otherwise it was a completely communal effort under Riley's minimal guidance.

Saturday's John Cage concert was tougher going, inevitably since Cage developed music which provides space for the audience to find meaning rather than bringing meaning itself. The first work, Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano in fact met the audience half way through the pwerfully expressive dancing of Sardono, the Indonesian choreographer, who also performed the sections that did not involve the keyboard, for example by plucking the piano strings or vocalising into the frame to set up a resonance.

The simultaneous performances of three related works was dominated by David Thomas' performance of Aria, originally written for Cathy Berberian. Thomas (best known for Pere Ubu) resembles Orson Welles in a way, large, dressed in black with soul patch and beret. His physical presence and the fact that the voice is the only remotely human element in the performance, obscured the rest of the sounds, but made for a dramatic performance. (A soprano was heard leaving the Waterside Restaurant to applause, presumably after performing as part of the free Musicircus event, saying that she hoped she never had to do Cage's Aria again. Thomas seemed to enjoy it.)

Ryoanji is more straightforwardly programmatic, a representation of a Japanese Buddhist rock garden, based on a steady percussion beat, with flute and double bass playing more fluid lines that build up by means of tape loops into a "solid", stone-line pattern.

Four6, effectively Cage's last work, has a sparer texture, and is almost certainly difficult and perhaps depressing in itself, evoking (by semi-coincidence) the circumstances of its first performance, a wet evening in the park. But in this concert it was combined with a similarly aleatory dance composition by Thea Nerissa Barnes, performed by Phoenix Dance. The dancers' bright costumes (based on elements of paintings by Joan Miro) and their emotionally charged interaction formed a contrast and intermittent counterpoint to the lugubrious music, and provided an uplifting finale to a demanding evening.

H.E. Elsom



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