Classical: No laughing matter

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The Independent Culture



HOW EXPERIMENTAL can a group of composers be 30 years on? Doesn't this present something of a dilemma? In the late Sixties, a group of English composers, later acknowledged as the English Experimental School, came together as much to distribute music deemed unpublishable by the establishment as to challenge the establishment itself.

By establishment, think BBC, conventional orchestras, conventional concert- giving and particularly "conventional" composition. Contemporary composition at that time was dominated by a seemingly intractable establishment. The heavyweight festivals of Darmstadt and Donaueschingen were high temples to modernism: "black spaghetti" music. Audiences comprised clubs of the similar minded. Never mind that the larger public was alienated; it didn't matter. This was the right way of doing things and woe betide those that stepped outside the loop.

But many did. John Cage, long before, had challenged America's German- dominated compositional world. And before him, such important "outsiders" as Erik Satie and Percy Grainger had challenged their received notions of the orthodox. But how the pendulum has swung! Classic "outsiders" of the late Sixties - Steve Reich, Philip Glass and even John Cage pack our concert halls.

The English Experimental School included Cornelius Cardew, Hugh Shrapnel, Gavin Bryars, Howard Skempton, Christopher Hobbs, John White, Dave Smith and Michael Parsons among others. It was a quietly seditious movement challenging the complex with music, at times, of childish simplicity. But simplicity was an important key not only because it allowed a non- trained public to participate - The Scratch Orchestra was the most infamous example - but it challenged complexity with the most powerful of tools: humour.

On Sunday night at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a mini-revival of the English Experimentalists was offered by the Gemini group, under the banner of "Composer's Choice", the composer being Christopher Hobbs. Alongside works of his own, pieces by John White, Dave Smith and Michael Parsons were heard by an admittedly tiny crowd - the second-generation "outsider" John Adams having stolen scalps to the Barbican.

But what was worrying about the ICA concert was that humour seemed to have disappeared. Was humour, in any case, always derived from the function of the composer as performer? In this concert, no composer played his music. How much one missed the sardonic talents of John White or Dave Smith as pianists, driving forward the anti-complexities of their tonally simple, deadpan works. Which is not to decry the talents of the members of Gemini, possibly London's most active contemporary music group. If the title of "experimental" is now anachronistic, English Deadpan might be a better one - except that the humour's gone. A pity.