The culmination of a long association with pianist Matthew Mills, Bagatelles represents some 30 years of piano music by British composer Bernard Hughes.
A concert of new music on the 8th April explores 2 aspects of music making that have many composers and performers of contemporary music anxiously rubbing their fore heads and frantically devising new systems to communicate, score and control. The systems that we use to communicate music stop, near boundaries that fluid microtonal playing and improvisation leap over with relish, moving freely, in out of reach fields. The concert to which I am referring consciously takes that leap, and judging by a tour of churches and other spaces that house tracker action organs in 2014 the leap these three musicians make (which I admit, I am one) promises to be a joyful dance into the hidden spaces between semitones, and into the hidden time of this moment: The present, which is so often masked and manipulated by the dual tyrannies of the past and the future. What could be, what should be, and what was.
So firstly, on improvisation. I am glad to say that for many enthusiasts of new music, improvisation is no longer a word or practice that makes eyes roll. Glad I am, that an improviser is no longer just regarded as a musician resistant to being challenged by the mighty mind of pen and paper, and nothing more. This is slowly shifting, and a new understanding is emerging. So much so that I have read in a few reviews that live improvisation has become very trendy of late, however, as it cannot by it’s nature be marketable, due to it’s un-nerving lack of advance warning for the audience and publicist alike, so it’s debatable ‘trendiness’ generally falls again and again to a few dozen shifting devotees. These are people who relish the effort that listening to, and enabling improvisation demands. Just as someone reciting words through a stream of consciousness, responding to their moment, all the meanings that their art has asked of them, may result in a rabble of connections and poetic jumps that the listener takes what they can from, to make and remake their own beauty, humour or story. So too, do the audiences who come to be part of an improvised concert. And it is really for them to tell the rest of us, what has happened, what was heard, what was discovered. Although the unpredictable quality of the music makes market forces unable to get a truly firm grip, there is a great interest, and need from many people for this kind of deep creative listening, where the musicians and the audience take each others hands and go together, to places they did not know until now, that were not relevant until this moment, where listening is reflected from musician to audience and back again and into the spaces and silences we all sit in and amongst.
So a concert is also event. And an event is also a celebration, in the case I am writing about, there is a pre-determined design to celebrate tuning.
The unraveling of complexities of pitch vibrations, where pitch and texture meet and dissolve the domains that our meager words and descriptions have assigned to them, is a veritable Pandoras musical box for our ears to witness and absorb. Exploring quarter tones and smaller intervals provided rich musical material for many composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Giacinto Scelsi, Terry Riley and La Monte Young, and cultures of music most famously Balinese Gamelan which was often the first route into non western music for composers at the turn of the 20th century such as Claude Debussy. These explorations open windows and let in the fresh winds to cool the heat and heaviness of the serious weight that harmony heavy western legacies have left us. There is no question I think, that the power of vibrations of sound come to some kind of auditory clarity when we hear a pitch, we give it a name, assign it a number and an identity, but this sound, like a word or a movement gains it’s meaning from all the concepts that surround it. And concepts are ideas.
What happens when we recondition our minds and ideas around what we should expect from a church organ and two string instruments? Windy boxes, manipulated to varying degrees by the technologies and bodies around them. Half stops, pulls, wheezing rattling, and singing through a veil of gentle pulsing. For us, the harmony is there, the melody is there, the song is there, but it’s up to the audience who will be our co-creators in naming and understanding what they hear, to let the language of micro-tonal manipulations speak to them.
So it is with luck and perhaps moments of design that I have a chance to play in these conditions. As an improvising musician it is part of my job, as many will attest, to greet each place and moment as it is, to let it speak, yes, to imprint myself somewhere there, but first and foremost to allow the place, moment, apparatus and contexts of the sounds to find their language and in some way to give voice to that. We are beginning to understand that freedom requires acknowledgement of past, indeed in order to let go of those burdens that can restrain an instrument and a person from being free, we must embrace all of it. So with instruments steeped in history, religion & traditions such as Organ, Cello and Violin we go forth to visit the crevices and caves beneath the sounds we call pitch and hope to shine some light.