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Maximum Minimalism

Koerner Hall
08/01/2013 -  
“The Minimalist Dream House Project”:
Erik Satie: Le Fils des Etoiles (Prélude du 1er Acte)
John Cage: Experiences No. 1
Arvo Pärt: Hymn to a Great City
William Duckworth: Time Curve Preludes No. 7 & No. 12
Philip Glass: 4 movements – One plus One
Terry Riley: In C
Brian Eno: In Dark Trees
Radiohead: Pyramid Song
Raphël Séguiner: Free to X
Glenn Branca: Lesson No. 1
Sonic Youth: Free City Rhymes
Suicide: Ghost Rider
David Chalmin: Gameland
Howard Skepton: Images (Excerpts) – Postlude
James Tenney: Postal Piece No. 10
Harry Flynt: Work such that no one knows what's going on
Nicola Tescari: Suonar Remembrando "Chaconne"
La Monte Young: The Tortoise, His Dream and Journeys

Katia and Marielle Labèque (piano), David Chalmin (guitar, vocals, electronics), Nicola Tescari (keyboards and electronics), Alexandre Maillard (bass), Raphaël Séguiner (drums and electronics)

K. & M. Labèque (© Umberto Nicoletti)

Four solid hours of minimalism! If that sounds like a contradiction in terms – well, it is.

Katia and Marielle Labèque, along with their four colleagues who form what amounts to a rock group, have devised this “Minimalist Dream House Project”. Three of the “rock group” had their own compositions on the program. The audience was alerted to the fact that the concert was four hours long. There were 24 items on the program, including three on tape: two played during the two intermissions, and one, Laurie Anderson’s Time to go, as we left at the end.

The evening began with Toronto Summer Music Festival artistic director, Douglas McNabney, giving us a 15-minute briefing about minimalism and its connections with other media. He is a very good speaker, but really ought to have made use of a microphone (as Katia Labèque did later when she made a few remarks). The first work was an excerpt from Erik Satie’s music for the play Le Fils des Etoiles from 1891, charmingly performed by Marielle Labèque. This was obviously a tie-in with the festival’s theme this year of La Belle Epoque. It also reminded one that Satie underwent rediscovery and critical reassessment in the 1960s, the decade when minimalism was launched – perhaps he is regarded as unwitting founding father.

The two sisters then performed John Cage’s Experiences No. 1 from 1945 which turned out to be (surprise!) a quite clearly structured ostinato.

Next up was Arvo Pärt’s Hymn to a Great City (composed 1984/2004) – it comes across as a languorous bit of jazz (apparently Pärt is considered “the holy minimalist” in some quarters). In contrast this was followed by William Duckworth’s two hard-driving Time Curve Preludes, composed 1977-78. This was followed by what to me was the main and best piece of the evening, Philip Glass’s 4 movements, a piece that bubbles joyously along for about 25 minutes (composed 2008).

This brought us to the first intermission during which Terry Riley’s Bird of Paradise was played over the speakers. The part I heard sounded like the distant rumble of an earthquake.

For the middle third of the evening, the rock ensemble took centre stage, along with Katia Labèque. They began with Terry Riley’s In C, a rather famous/notorious piece (dating from 1964) that can last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes as the players extemporise repetitive cadences all around middle C. This performance went beyond the 30-minute mark and well into the realm of self-indulgence. This was followed by Brian Eno’s In Dark Trees (1975) which quite straightforwardly conjures up a jungle. A less driven work followed, Radiohead’s Pyramid Song (2001), featuring a yearning vocal contribution from David Chalmin. This was followed by five pieces that either started out loud or became very loud and then ended very abruptly: Raphaël Séguinier’s Free to X (2011); Glenn Branca’s Lesson No. 1 (1979) – relentless, heavy rock; Sonic Youth’s Free City Rhymes (2000) – very thumpy, causing a few people to leave; Suicide’s Ghost Ride (very, very LOUD), then David Chalmin’s Gameland (2011) involving the piano’s innards being manipulated among other techniques. At the end of each of these pieces certain members of the audience felt compelled to hoot with delight.

This took us to the three-hour point of the evening. Katia then gave a charming speech telling us that this program is often performed over two evenings and that it was totally understandable if people wanted to leave. In the intermission (during which Laurie Anderson’s O Superman was heard) a good half of the audience did just that.

The final third opened with (what a relief!) seven and a half minutes of excerpts from Howard Skempton’s Images (1989), rather moody, late evening pieces beautifully played by Marielle. This was followed by Skempton’s mesmerizing Postlude (1978) performed by Raphaël Séguiner using soft hammers against a gong. It starts out at a subliminal level than slowly, inexorably builds to as large a crescendo as is possible using just one gong, then subsides back down. Evelyn Glennie does a similar thing with the snare drum; pieces like this might be party tricks, but they are darn good ones.

Séguiner than sat down at the piano and performed James Tenney’s Postal Piece No. 10: Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (1971) which involved drumming with the fingers on the closed piano lid. Next on the printed program was Henry Flynt’s Work such that no one knows what’s going on of 1961. Mr Flynt is credited with coining the term “concept art”. The prescribed length of this composition is 0' 00", which is as minimal as one can get (although the title could have been shorter). Question: does Flynt get a performance fee when the piece is listed on a program?

This was followed by another Philip Glass piece, One plus One from 1967 – pleasantly floaty. Next was Nicola Tescari’s Suonar Rembrando (2011) based on a work by the 17th-century Italian composer Tarquinio Merula. One would never have guessed such a source; it starts with a clang and becomes a spasmodic collage.

The final work was La Monte Young’s The Tortoise, His Dream and Journeys; composition of the piece began in 1964 and is ongoing. Let it be known that the August 1, 2013, Toronto formation of it consisted of a relentless low drone that rose (unattractively) from the bowels of the earth.

Toronto Summer Music obviously decided to do something way out and wild amidst a festival largely devoted to a wide range of chamber music. This rather daunting program gave an overview of minimalism, revealing a good deal of variety in the genre (is it a genre? - that might be an insult) as well as a degree of monotony. Toronto is actually quite well-served by presenters of new music, but it is such a large, varied field that this “project” opened doors to an impressive, if not always successful, array of innovation.

Michael Johnson



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