Monday night was one of my more unusual performance contexts (I know I seem to be writing that a lot lately).
It was the opening of an art exhibition which in some way (I never had time to find out exactly how) constitutes part of a PhD submission at Oxford Brookes University, by Veronica Cordova. Her doctorate is in combined arts, however, not Fine Art or equivalent label meaning visual and static only; so the opening event also included two short performance art slots. The first of these had live musical accompaniment, and it was this that I was involved in.
So I, or rather we, were backing nine-minutes of semi-narrative, semi-symbolic (I believe) solo movement connected with an episode which took place in a Holocaust concentration camp – explicitly not dance, though I would find it hard in some senses to draw the line; the difference is probably about being rhythmic or not in expression. Veronica had commissioned a piece for this, from a composer in Mexico (her home country I believe). It was scored for the slightly unusual string quintet format of two violins, viola (which I was playing), cello, double bass, and constructed largely around a repeated (but moving around the group) crotchet-quaver pulse in 12/8 time (suspended in a middle section), and a long-drawn-out thread of suspensions, partial or achieved resolutions and modulations of harmony, with corresponding swells and falls in volume.
All of this proceeded at 29 dotted crotchet beats per minute, which is to say just under one beat in two seconds. Try that against a metronome, or even a watch with a seconds hand, and you’ll rapidly understand why we resorted by immediate common consent to counting quavers instead (87bpm is pretty reasonable to count though still not fast). This also explains the biggest difficulties of the piece: staying in time (above all in the 16 bars or so near the centre point without the ‘heartbeat’ pulse in any of the parts), keeping concentration (with very few evident markers except where a part came in or dropped out, losing your place could be fatal!), and sustaining one to a part tone over notes that were often very long indeed.
Interestingly, when we first rehearsed it at the peak of last week’s southern UK heatwave, the speed seemed crushingly slow and it took us about half an hour to find the ‘groove’ (yes, this can be a real issue for classical musicians too!). Coming back to it on Monday in lower temperatures, though admittedly with much better familiarity, the exact same tempo as dictated by metronome literally seemed quicker, I believe because we were all able to relax into it much more easily.
That said, I had to focus too much on playing (see above) to give any real impression of Veronica’s performance over this aural backing. What I can say (with broad consent of the other players) is that having in some sense ‘got into’ the musical piece, despite its evident and achieved goal of being harrowing in most places – a lament and more goos than threnos if I remember the terms of classical literature correctly – it also had moving moments of real beauty. One of the effects learned from modernist harmony (or perhaps earlier, thinking of Wagner or Richard Strauss) is that a context of heavy and/or sustained dissonance and suspension can make a carefully-planned arrival at a simple minor or major triad a thing of startling beauty.
For the next few gigs the viola gets packed away again and it’s out with the violin and pickup. The Filthy Spectacula return to one of our first festival bookings tomorrow (Friday) at Kippertronix (further up the bill this time!); on Saturday Kindred Spirit duo are back at the Hope in Richmond where we’ll see if I can whip the crowd up with violin showboating any earlier in the set than two weeks ago!