Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Anna Meredith: Industrial Noise

Sometimes I think that most of the people at the Guardian who write about music graduated from a music appreciation course for non-musicians last year and spend most of their time at EDM festivals. That impression is strengthened by this piece about composer Anna Meredith: "Classical composer's industrial noise is a triumph." Here, let's have a read:
The list of upcoming gigs on Anna Meredith’s website is boggling in its range: band shows alternate with concert performances of a recorder concerto, a symphony for body parts, music for jazz orchestra and a reinterpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Varmints, her debut album, is where she turns her work as a contemporary composer up to 11: she’s said in an interview that her iPod is “90% Queen” and it certainly shows.
This “international launch party” begins, like the album, with Nautilus: a pulverising instrumental track that swells through a series of rhythmic detonations designed, at a guess, to demolish buildings.
After that, we really have to listen to the piece:

Ohkaaaayyy... It is hard to hear that as anything other than the perfect music to accompany the cartoonish video. It is like a children's animation from a Saturday morning tv schedule in hell--or Bizzaroworld. However, since I am way out of the intended demographic and besides a noted reactionary, let's look at a video review:

Ohkaaaaayyy... I managed to listen to about three minutes of that babbled out word-salad before I had to stop. By that point I was pretty sure he was not actually going to say anything either comprehensible or worth hearing. My guess about the background and training of many of the Guardian writers would seem to apply to this fellow even more. He is talking to consumers of music who have even less basic knowledge than he does, so I suppose that is ok. But I think what we are seeing here is the inexorable defining down of aesthetics to the point where albums like Anna Meredith's Varmints and reviews like this one are counted the new normal, i.e. this is an acceptable level of aesthetic achievement.

Anna Meredith (follow the link for the Wikipedia article) is a young Scottish composer with an impressive resume and what seems to impress everyone is how easily she moves around within genres and styles that are very contemporary and hip. But still she is a classical composer with credentials. Wikipedia tells us she has a master's degree from the Royal College of Music, but don't tell us who she studied composition with, which to me would be more interesting.

Her breakthrough composition seems to have been froms written for performance at the Proms in 2008. That doesn't seem to be available on YouTube. But we do have this piece, Handsfree, from the 2012 Proms:

It is only six minutes long so you should be able to listen to the whole thing. UPDATE: I was fooled like the audience into thinking the piece was over. But it goes on for the whole clip.

Creative and innovative, sure. Plus it is entirely free of those unforgivable sins of racism, mysogyny, orientalism, otherism, sexism and so forth. You might, at a stretch, be able to accuse it of cultural appropriation, but only if you consider kindergarten an actual culture. Apart from the fact that by the end, it is probably quite tricky to keep all the gestures and movements straight, this is a perfect example of the infantilization of the culture. I wonder that the orchestra even agreed to perform it. If I were a member of the orchestra I would be asking myself, "is this what I spent years learning my instrument to go onstage to perform?" Just good fun or humiliating absurdity? I guess that after a few decades of stringent propagandizing both young musicians and audiences are able to watch a display like this with little or no sense of incongruity or embarrassment.

Still, this is undoubtedly a triumph because there is no danger that a piece like this will make even the least educated audience member feel out of place or in danger of misunderstanding the music. This is about as egalitarian as you can get. Plus, bonus, no problem of clapping in the wrong place!

The only problem is, while music like this richly deserves to be parodied, it seems to be rather beyond parody.


David said...

Bryan, you break me up: of course kindergarten is an "actual" culture!

You did lure me into watching the Handsfree video with your promise of a six minute excursion. It actually lasts for over 13 minutes. In fact, the Proms audience was lured into applauding at the wrong time! The head swoop fake was just the break between the first and second movements of movements.

Tying this to the theme of your previous post, this composition is obviously "serious" music, at least the first movement is. There wasn't a smile or other expression of joy to be seen anywhere among the orchestra members. A glimpse of the bust of Sir Henry Wood (the founder of the Proms) made it clear that, in good Victorian form, he "was not amused".

Perhaps Meredith was trying to insert more "promenade" into the Proms. It certainly seemed so as the movement tutor and choreographer was introduced with the composer when the thing actually finished. As someone who has trouble keeping up with the "Electric Slide" on the dance floor, I will confess some envy of the NYO members and their demonstrated ensemble playing in the tutti sections.

Meredith claims the "hook" to this composition is that it "breaks down the hierarchy of the orchestra. The principal violinist is no more important than the second violinist." There is no arguing with this, it seems to turn the orchestra into a beatbox ensemble. The composer/creator seems to have taken the words of George Gershwin to heart: "I got rhythm....who could ask for anything more?"

Jeph said...

Whew, that was rough sledding, painful. Absent the video "Nautilus" just doesn't add up to much. Nice chromatic scale, I guess?....energetic rhythm...but the sound just reminds me of a crappy keyboard "brass" preset. It's not even good straight up synthesizer music, there are lots of artists playing/programming circles around this stuff.

I turned off the clapping about 45 seconds in. Yeah, it's insulting. Sorry, not giving it a chance. Kindergarten, heh, good one! I would have to tell a conductor no, I'm not playing this unless it means my job. That's dance: let dancers do it. if this is what we get from the breakdown of the hierarchy of the orchestra, maybe we should just leave it in place.

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh! Thanks, David. I was a bit pressed for time this morning, so when the audience started clapping I concluded that the piece was finished and the rest would be BBC commentary or something. Thanks for the alert! After listening to the rest I don't have too much to add, but the piece more and more sounds like the Balinese Monkey Chant, only not so interesting.

The performers did enjoy the physicality of it more and more.

So it turns out that my ideological nose was accurate: it is about the egalitarianism. And yes, it turns one hundred highly trained musicians into a beatbox.


Ken Fasano said...

Hmm... time for some more Schubert? Peter Maxwell-Davies or Steve Reich? There are rich cultural periods (Athens between 550 BC and 220 BC) and cultural periods where the previous vitality has disappeared (Athens after the Peloponnesian War?). We're in a cultural period where the vitality from - Machaut? Josquin? - to the 20th century - Stravinsky? Reich?? - has disappeared. What are we to do. Simply criticisizing the new kindergartenism of 21st century art isn't enough. Perhaps our task is to pass on the traditions of the vital periods of our cultural to future generations. Geez - I was an adamant avant gardist in my younger days. Listen to me - I sound like an old fogey!

Bryan Townsend said...

Ken, you highlight the dilemma pretty well. I try to do my bit by distinguishing what seems to me to be significant music from the trivial, but the real task is to create something worthwhile. Quite often, when I miss a day posting here, it is because I am trying to write something. But creation, as you say, at this moment in time is not so easy!

Jeph, you might want to listen to all of the clapping piece. It does go somewhere. But it is twelve minutes long, not six. Could be done as well by dancers, as you say. I wonder if any member of the orchestra just stood up and said no?

Christine Lacroix said...

If you read this you might think "There they go again!"

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christine. That is going right into my Friday Miscellanea.