To know a bird's song
Tangram premiering Alex Ho, Jasmin Kent Rodgman and Raymond Yiu at LSO St Luke's (25 January 2020)
Tangram, an artist collective creating music that opens up spaces beyond the China-West dichotomy, returned to LSO St Luke’s a year on from its debut in January 2019 to celebrate the Lunar New Year. World premieres from transnational composers Alex Ho, Jasmin Kent Rodgman and Raymond Yiu welcomed in the Year of the Rat, weaved between Chinese folk songs arranged for the ensemble. Ho’s Say Hi was first up, its programme note explaining that it was scored for any four instruments with the additional (dreaded) forces of...
We were asked in English, Cantonese and Mandarin to stand for the duration of each movement (which were spread across the evening), to say hi to our neighbours and then to sing, following the melodic line of the flute. Simple really, but as someone who doesn't usually sing and has never been part of a choir it was a warming experience to feel an injection of endorphins from singing as part of a group. The second movement continued in this vein, requiring that the audience be split into three, with each section humming a note to build a chord that would swell underneath the ensemble. The scored music shifted and strayed, subtly stretching and bending the audience’s buzzing notes, ultimately leaving them somewhere different from where they began. A standing ovation naturally followed all three movements before the audience sat for the next piece.
Accompanying us hummers on this occasion were Yi-Hsuan Chen (flute), Jessica Zhu (piano), Angela Wai Nok Hui (percussion) and Reylon Yount (yangqin), and it was that last instrument that most drew the ear and eye throughout the concert. The yangqin (扬琴) is believed to have originated in Persia, finding its way into China approximately 400 years ago through the Silk Road trade route. Tangram co-founder Reylon Yount’s website explains that this kind of cimbalom has only been considered a “Chinese” instrument since the early 1950s, and that 'Yang Qin' could originally be translated as 'foreign zither'. However, when the Chinese orchestra was standardised, the ‘yang’ character was swapped for one with same pronunciation but with a different meaning. It's important to discover how recent and fluid our heritage can often be, in these times more than ever.
In the preconcert talk, Jasmin Kent Rodgman explained her reluctance to exploit Chinese tropes whilst also wanting to claim her own identity. Chinese influences in ancient stone came in the form of musical quotations, most notably from the song Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower), which Rodgman says was included as family members in Malaysia often ask her if she can perform it when visiting because of her name. Players were occasionally required to overlap and interrupt the music with proverbs in spoken word and song, jumping out like intertitles in silent movies. These proverbs separated four musical scenic photographs, each with a differing character. Inspired by Chinese opera, these scenes had a theatricality to them and one could imagine an invisible drama playing out in the room.
“Watch until clouds part to see moonlight”
“Small as it is, the sparrow has all the vital organs”
“To know a fish go to the water;
to know a bird's song go to the mountains”
As the percussionist's kalimba cast raindrops over the end of ancient stone, the yangqin was bowed and scraped, revealing for the first time the depth of the reverberation that the body of the instrument harbours, creating space to contemplate the answer to an unvoiced question.
Raymond Yiu remoulds the words of Rupert Brooke’s poem The Soldier for the title of his piece, Corner of a Foreign Field. Commemorating Chinese workers who were recruited to the Allied war effort in 1917 to perform manual labour during the later part of World War I, the opening call of the solo flute evoked The Last Post and suggested, then, that not only is there “some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”, but also that is forever China. The work built rhythmically into an almost Reich-like section, before shifting to a slow progression of piano chords, inviting reflection. Ghosts were raised at the close, whistling from the percussionist's wine glass.
In amongst these new works, Alex Ho's arrangements of traditional Chinese tunes left no doubt that the evening was a celebration, and an opportunity for some in the audience to explore a potentially unfamiliar culture and tradition. The concert ended with Ho's arrangement of the jaunty and celebratory Beautiful Flowers and the Full Moon, confirming that you're unlikely to hear anything quite like a Tangram concert anywhere else. ⓡ
Just a beginning of something...
Philip Thomas performing Christian Wolff and Morton Feldman at Cafe OTO (10 December 2019)
“It’s an odd kind of music,” announced pianist Philip Thomas ahead of performing Christian Wolff’s Three Studies, “but if you find this music as curious as I do, you’ll be pleased to know that Christian wrote to John Cage in 1980 saying that he did too.”
Thomas had taken to the stage at Cafe OTO for a first half filled with Wolff's music just as it began hammering down with rain outside. It was his second of two concerts across Monday and Tuesday celebrating the recent release of two solo recordings: Christian Wolff’s Preludes, Variations, Studies and Incidental Music on Sub Rosa and Morton Feldman Piano on Another Timbre.
Wolff's minimal notation, Thomas explained, is often “just a beginning of something...”, its use of freedom and improvisatory sensibility a starting point upon which a performer builds their response. Proceedings kicked off with such a response, Tilbury, written for Cafe OTO regular John Tilbury in 1969. The piece comprised fragments, repeated and cut up, shifting and revealing themselves like ghosts walking into the frame and disappearing again just as suddenly.
A single vocalisation, causing the briefest, gentle shock. This moment hung over the rest of the piece like an enchantment, not occurring again until virtually the very last note. The cafe door opened for latecomers a few minutes into the performance, the brief bursts of falling rain sharply punctuating moments inside the piano, plucked notes like muted car horns, and then:
...and the spell was broken.
Again written for John Tilbury, the Three (Satie) Variations were incredible for how, from a stream of notes, just one could jump out and throw you into Satie’s Gymnopédies or Gnossiennes. The first variation, En Plus, gets stuck in loops of two notes like a broken record. The second, Another Variation, hits straight into Vexations from the opening chord, before creating a Frankenstein's monster from Satie's other works.
After a short interval came Morton Feldman’s 70-minute For Bunita Marcus. Where Wolff’s piano music has a jagged edge, Feldman's has a softness. Mesmeric notes hang. Phrases begin at exactly the right moment after the maximum possible amount of space. It gets to the point where you can confidently predict which notes Feldman is going to use next, but he shifts, melts and disrupts their rhythm, creating constellations that unpredictably collide with one another. Indeed, in his programme note Feldman claims that it wasn't important to explain where the notes came from as he just pulled them out of his ear. Metre forms the building blocks of the composition. Not 'rhythm', but "the duration which something needs."
Beforehand, I expected that Cafe OTO might be too noisy an environment for this quiet music, but time froze. The audience was still, holding its collective breath. Only the occasional creak of a rickety wooden chair betrayed a congregation hiding behind its ears. I didn’t dare move in case my own chair dragged my neighbour out of their trance. Thomas seemed occasionally shocked by what he saw on the pages before him, but I expect that’s part of why he loves this music so much: because what lurks beyond each page turn can still hold such surprises. The simplicity of the notation hides within it a richness, a subtle ebb and flow. Everything felt open ended to the extent that when the last note died away, so did universes. ⓡ