Prom 44

To judge by the continued chatter, no-one noticed 100 metronomes on stage being set in motion, signalling the beginning of György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique. But oddly, there was barely a sound during John Cage’s 4'33''. A provocative evening at the Proms from the London Sinfonietta and André de Ridder.

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To judge by the continued chatter, no-one noticed 100 metronomes on stage being set in motion, signalling the beginning of György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique (1962). Even when the lights were dimmed it only dawned on people slowly that the concert had actually already begun. And yet once the realisation hit home, the entire audience was drawn into the piece, the suspense palpable as one by one the metronomes, each set at a pre-fixed speed, dropped out, eventually leaving only three... then two... then one. The sole surviving metronome has been likened to Ligeti’s personal position as a survivor of the Second World War, despite the composer’s humorous intentions with this work. A piece that is as engaging visually as it is aurally, with its hundred gold glinting pendulums swinging back and forth, it is remarkable how many timbres can be achieved using only different combinations of metronomes. From a purely mechanical clacking, to the chimes of an old grandfather clock and later, the patter of rain on rooftops, the variation is remarkable. That this was the first performance of the piece at the Proms might account for the audience’s initial lack of understanding, but this was overcome as members of the audience attempted their own version of the piece in the staggered, out-of-time applause that followed.

Berio’s Sequenza V (1966) – another first performance at the Proms – made an equally deep impression. This “theatre of vocal and instrumental gestures” (Berio’s own description of the piece) saw virtuoso trombonist Byron Fulcher, in full clown costume, performing this extremely demanding piece to perfection. Not only did Fulcher demonstrate his technical proficiency (the piece requires simultaneous singing and playing in order to achieve “ ‘vocalisation’ of the instrument and ‘instrumentalisation’ of the voice”, an effect reminiscent of the didgeridoo), but also his dedication to the role, which is by turns comedic and tragic. From the moment Fulcher took to the stage to the moment he left if, he was in character. Fulcher’s calibre is beyond doubt.

Xenakis’ Phlegra followed, performed by the London Sinfonietta, the contemporary music ensemble for whom the piece was composed in 1975. Conducted by André de Ridder, the piece combines the modern with the ageless. This battle between old and new is mirrored in the myth behind the title – the clash between the Titans and the Olympian gods and the struggle between the musical elements within the piece. Although the music is meant to sound like the combat that inspired it, I felt it lacked the drama and the extremes of contrast to make this convincing.

English composer Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos plango, vivos voco, for eight-channel tape (1980), also brings together old and new – this time the bells of Winchester Cathedral with what was modern recording technology. Although some of the effects feel a little dated now, this piece is still beautiful and worked very well in the space. Sound Intermedia were responsible for the sound projection and managed to achieve a sense of complete immersion in the music with their surround-sound set up. The effect was so realistic that people were actually looking up, as if the chiming bell was right above them. This provided quite a contrast to Andriessen’s De snelheid (1982-3, rev. 1984) – yet another debut performance at the Proms. Although the title means “velocity”, Andriessen explained in a brief interview before the performance that the piece is just as much about slowness. As with the Xenakis I felt the contrast between musical elements – in this case the “jazz band” and conventional orchestra – was not extreme enough. I was, however, completely in awe of the percussionists David Hockings, Joe Cooper and London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble player Serge Vuille, who made their challenging parts look easy.

Given that I had actually wondered earlier in the concert whether people had been hired to make noise as the audience was so loud, I was surprised at the performance of Cage’s 4’33’’. There was barely a sound – only a couple of coughs and a single sneeze. Really? You’re quiet now? It made a mockery of the announcer’s labouring of the point that this was an “unsilent silent piece”. And it got me wondering whether 4’33’’ can ever work quite as well as it did that first time. The beauty of this piece is that no two performances will sound the same – so I understand that it could never sound like the original. But the original had a point to make (the announcer reminded us that this wasn’t merely a gag, but proper composition), and now that we are familiar with the concept can it ever have such an impact?

Matthew Herbert was invited to make a “live remix” of the evening’s concert to conclude the Prom, which he entitled Small, Smaller, Smallest. Highlighting the democratisation of music-making and the continued blurring of boundaries between noise and music since Cage, Herbert’s piece ingeniously required audience participation in his surprise contribution. For perhaps the first time in concert history, the audience was asked to turn on their mobile phones, compose a text message to themselves, and wait for the instruction to press send. The result should have been 400 different ringtones going off at once. Or 399, because I’m so paranoid about my phone going off in concerts that I had put in on silent before I turned it off – a fact that I unfortunately forgot. In fact, it was probably closer to 20 phones going off, and not at the same time – I don’t think we synchronised our text-sending very well. But it was a great idea and a thought-provoking end to the concert.

Programme
Ligeti, György (1923-2006), La Poème Symphonique
Berio, Luciano (1925-2003), Sequenza V, for solo trombone
Xenakis, Iannis (1922-2001), Phlegra
Harvey, Jonathan (b. 1939), Mortuos plango, vivos voco
Andriessen, Louis (b. 1939), De Snelheid
Cage, John (1912-1992), 4'33"
Artists
Byron Fulcher, Trombone
Sound Intermedia
London Sinfonietta
London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble
Andre de Ridder, Conductor
Tonight’s pocket history of post-war music, reflecting
Radio 3’s Fifty Modern Classics, opens with Ligeti’s
playful Poème for 100 ticking metronomes. In Berio’s
solo trombone extravaganza the player employs
many extended techniques and at one point turns
to the audience to ask, ‘Why?’ Xenakis makes lively
play out of rigorous patternings and Cage – whose
centenary we mark this year – removes the idea of
a sound source altogether. Before that notorious
provocation there’s Jonathan Harvey’s haunting
electronic amalgam of a Winchester Cathedral
bell and the voice of his boy chorister son,
and Louis Andriessen’s thrilling, hard-Minimalist
musical clock.

Royal Albert Hall

Kensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP