Colour on all sides

A review of the recent RTÉ Living Music Festival which focused on jazz and the music of American composer John Adams.

RTÉ Living Music Festival,
Various venues, Dublin, 16-18 February 2007

When RTÉ decided to move the Living Music Festival from the Helix to the city centre and to focus the 2006 festival on the music of Steve Reich, it was rewarded with packed houses and plentiful publicity. The fact that the audience included an unusually high proportion of young people would not have gone unnoticed. In radio terms, Reich is a composer who appeals to both the John Kelly and the Bernard Clarke listenerships. There had been genuine enthusiasm behind the choice of Reich. Whatever the differences between the composers, a good percentage of Reich-lovers are likely to be Adams-lovers too, so we may presume that it was love rather than hard-nosed calculation that lay behind the choice of Adams. It was hard to imagine, in any case, that the Adams name alone would be enough to replicate the Reich effect. Adams may be the most performed living composer in the States but he has not loomed as large in Irish consciousness as either Reich or Glass. (And – unless we are guaranteed a visual/theatrical display spectacular enough to counterweigh the awful music – can we be assured that a Philip Glass festival is not coming down the line?)

It came as something of a surprise that one of Ireland’s leading jazz figures, Ronan Guilfoyle, was to be festival director (or should we say semi-director, as RTÉ has now taken to choosing the central theme itself?). What would the focus be? How could the aesthetic behind Adam’s work be reconciled with a jazz aesthetic? Would this be a two-in-one festival or would some imaginative cross-cultural perspective emerge? There were three ways in which such questions could be answered – in the publicity material, in the debate that formed part of the festival and, of course, in the listening experience itself. In his message in the festival programme, Niall Doyle (for whose commitment and vision all interested in contemporary music in Ireland can be grateful) sees Adams as ‘another great American composer’, ‘a remarkable musician, responsible for a body of work without parallel in its variety, emotional impact, and communicative power and reach.’ What little I had experienced of Adams before the festival – Shaker Loops and an unpleasant orchestral work from the early 80s being my principal points of reference – would not have led me to share that judgement. However, a festival should not be judged on the degree to which it confirms one’s personal taste: the opportunity to challenge that taste, or to be given an intensive guided tour of alien territory, should also be welcomed.

Guilfoyle’s foreword was equally enthusiastic about Adams: ‘his music is at once accessible, sophisticated, humorous, energetic, emotional, very rhythmic and utterly relevant to the society from which he comes.’ Guilfoyle has been amazed by Adams’ ‘ability to be so original and yet fully represent the totality of contemporary music in his native America’ and notes that ‘his music shows the diverse influences of everything from Sibelius, Ives and Reich to what he describes as “vernacular” music – jazz, pop, bluegrass and middle-eastern classical music…’ The fact that jazz and other forms of ‘vernacular’ music are drawn on by Adams and that he is so distinctively American allows Guilfoyle to make the connection with jazz, his own primary sphere of interest: ‘Like Adams’ own music, jazz is also distinctively and recognisably American in its rhythmic drive, its ability to communicate widely and to represent many streams of influence in an utterly personal way.’

Rather than present one sector of jazz – and hoping perhaps to demonstrate to the classical audience how diverse jazz can be – Guilfoyle lined up an old-fashioned jazz orchestra/big band (the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra), a jazz composer writing for chamber ensemble (Ed Neumeister), a relatively demanding contemporary trio (Big Satan), a virtuoso piano soloist (Simon Nabatov) and a number of younger Irish players. This may have been an impressive demonstration of pluralism, but it meant that the event could also be seen as lacking focus. The classical equivalent might be to program Schubert, Grieg, Dusapin, Ian Wilson and Siobhan Cleary. This can be, and is, done, but I believe a festival of this type in Ireland needs to make a more focused impact. Few enough of those interested in the Stockholm Orchestra would also be followers of Tim Berne. It might be better to give each audience type its year in the sun. On the other hand, Guilfoyle may have been thinking that there would not be another such opportunity for jazz to display its wares alongside contemporary/classical work.

The discussion in the Sugar Club on Saturday afternoon, chaired by Bob Gilmore, took as its starting point a famous – but, as Raymond Deane pointed out, unsourced – quotation from Adams: ‘Whenever serious art loses track of its roots in the vernacular, then it begins to atrophy.’ In musical terms, the discussion was quite diverse: Webernian concision amid silence from Rolf Hind; Boulezian edge from Deane; mid-tempo thematic statements from Neumeister; a brassy outburst of dissent from audience-member Bernard Clarke at Deane’s statement that the media won’t tell the truth to power; gentle strumming from Guilfoyle… As it happened, the festival director’s contributions were rather a disappointment. He questioned the value or viability of music that was not in contact with the music the composer grew up with, but did not argue the point strongly enough or foresee some objections. His belief that jazz is especially valuable because it is such a ‘nice human thing to do’ to get on stage and ‘discuss’ something did not do enough to identify the specific nature of jazz; it would also encounter vigorous objection from the classical and traditional sectors, to name but two. His belief that jazz is about process rather than result also needs clarification and qualification, given that the history of jazz has coincided with the history of recording technology and that recordings are prized and listened to repeatedly as in other idioms. There was more agreement among the panel on issues such as the negative effect of all-pervasive muzak. In previous festivals, there have been mixed experiences with lectures, interviews and discussions. This year, in addition to the broad panel discussion, could we not have had a talk or a discussion specifically about Adams in the context of contemporary or American music?

As for Adams’ music, the festival demonstrated that he is a far more exuberant composer than Reich, for example, one who enjoys grabbing influences and sources, tossing them in the mixer while playing with the speed buttons, and splashing colour on all sides. Sections of such orchestral works as Century Rolls (RTÉ NSO with Rolf Hind on piano) and Harmonielehre on the opening night were like this, as were Gnarly Buttons, Scratchband and Chamber Symphony (courtesy of London Sinfonietta) on closing night. In contrast, there were quieter passages, sometimes folksy, sometimes hymnlike, sometimes reminiscent of Satie or Ravel. One major source of puzzlement: how a composer whose rhythmic sense is so frequently commented on could provide such banal material – very often, little more than energetic but monotonous whacking – for the percussion section. One recurring impression: that this was film music without a film (when musical interest waned it was possible to pass the time by inventing scenarios – here a highway vista, there the schoolteacher emerging from a lonely house on the prairie as a stranger passes… ). One question: other than particularly colourful orchestration, what distinguishes Adams’ apparently generous, vernacular use of American folk/popular elements from the shamrockery of which certain Irish composers are accused? To my ear, there is a substantial and ultimately tiresome element of kitsch to Adams’ music, something not to be found in, for example, the Smithsonian Institute’s outstanding recording Mountain Music of Kentucky. The more restrained the means, the better the music sounded: in the well-known Shaker Loops, for example, or the rolling, unrolling drama of Road Movies (for two pianos), both featuring in the Crash Ensemble concert; or again in John’s Book of Alleged Dances (played by the RTÉ Vanburgh String Quartet), where the multiple-miniature format allowed for variety, lightness and humour. I should add that, though even the London Sinfonietta’s playing converted me only spasmodically to the joys of Adams, people of quite diverse taste in the audience were united in their enthusiasm for the closing concert.

Other composers featured also. Bartók’s String Quartet No 4 (interrupted by an unfortunate instrument breakage) took on a more, shall we say, vernacular colouring in this company. Rolf Hind’s transparent enthusiasm for Ligeti’s technically demanding piano Études enthralled the audience. Michael d’Arcy, Joachim Roewer, William Butt and Izumi Kimura gave us another opportunity to hear Gerald Barry’s Piano Quartet No 1, as well as premiering jazz trombonist Ed Neumeister’s stylistically unconvincing Suite for Piano Quartet and Improvising Soloist. Both Crash and the London Sinfonietta featured works by Michael Gordon. And Crash also gave us the premiere of Kevin Volans’s Joining Up the Dots. The way in which minute and repeated attention was paid to minimal material was fascinating; but this was not quite the hushed performance the composer seemed to demand. (A recent concert by the improvising group The Sealed Knot at the Project showed how an audience can be led to pay rapt attention as the music hovers near silence.)

As I was shaking off headache and discomfort arising from illness earlier in the week, I missed the Irish jazz group White Rocket (and indeed the film presentation of The Death of Klinghoffer at the IFI). Jim McNeely’s work with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra seemed extremely professional and accomplished, though this is an area of jazz for which I have little personal affinity. The arranger/composer’s increasing contributions on piano were nicely judged. In an interesting piece of programming, Simon Nabatov followed Rolf Hind at the NCH. The Brazilian-flavoured material was skilfully elaborated but a little lush for my taste; some more sparsely-textured material towards the end of the concert was quite fascinating in its working of the upper and lower registers of the keyboard.

One of the festival highlights was the late-evening concert by Big Satan. Alto specialist Berne’s work has ranged from an almost insanely speedy rush through the Ornette Coleman back catalogue in the company of John Zorn (on a 1980s LP) to patient forty-minute journeys through his own material in the 1990s. Percussionist Tom Rainey does not engage in attention-seeking flamboyance so that you have to remind yourself sometimes of how essential his endlessly flexible and discreetly imaginative work is to the group. Marc Ducret’s command of every aspect of the electric guitar extends even to drawing a virtuoso, but musical, solo from manipulating the jack. But this very democratic trio’s performance was not at all about virtuosity in itself. Nor did they offer what might be called standard post-bop New York narrative; the narrative urge was there certainly, in these mostly medium-length pieces, but it emerged as much through elliptical, splintered gesture as in sustained variation. The players’ concentration and the music’s twists and turns evoked admiration and warm appreciation from those fortunate enough to be present.

Scottish composer James MacMillan, who is not afraid of controversy, is to be director of next year’s RTÉ LMF, centring on the work of Arvo Pärt. If what has been called holy minimalism sometimes shades into soft-focus interior decoration, let us hope that the festival responds imaginatively to the opportunity to look at the religious impulse in contemporary music. There is much to choose from, and much to debate, whether your taste runs to the stark psalm-singing of the Scottish highlands, to Pärt himself, or to the desolation of Galina Ustvolskaya’s symphonies. As always, we musical sinners can live in hope that next year’s festival will bring us closer to paradise.

Published on 1 May 2007

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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