Chaos! To Jean-Féry Rebel, the void was every note of the D minor scale, played simultaneously. To Joseph Haydn, it was an implacable C minor chord, sealed with the hollow knock of kettle-drums. To film-maker and graphic designer Tal Rosner, it is the enigmatic undulations of the Thames and the urgent geometrics of kinetic art. To Thomas Adès, it is a tumbling dance of violins and violas; too infectious in its loose-limbed, catch-me-if-you-can energy for the flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoon, contrabassoon, solo piano and bell-like percussion to resist joining in.
Described as a "piano concerto with moving image", Adès and Rosner's In Seven Days translates the creation myth for those raised on info-bars and interractive buttons. Behind the strings, woodwind, brass, tam-tam, gongs and tuned percussion of an expanded and amplified London Sinfonietta – and rather to the detriment of pianist Nicholas Hodges's 120 wpm fingers – Rosner's imagery plays on six screens: bold geometrics in brilliant colours, monochrome glimpses of Hungerford Bridge and Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall framed to look like the sails and hulls of giant ships. Though the images sometimes jar with the music, and the click-track forbids sprezzatura, what film-maker and composer share is their complete confidence in playing with history.
Adès's score is a limber collage of English Pastoral, neo-classicism and romanticism. Frank Bridge-style string-figures yield to wry, Stravinskian wind. Sensory overload is a given as sun, moon and stars appear in glistening percussion. A Brahmsian lullaby for horns leads into a Schumannesque swell of divisi double-basses and a series of open-ended Mahlerian cadences. Pairing the premiere of In Seven Days with Steve Reich's sublime Music for Eighteen Musicians inevitably made the newer work seem cluttered by comparison. (A fugue? How quaint!) But how exciting to hear a Romantic voice in this unromantic age.
Unless, of course, that voice is the voice of a new Bruckner: derivative, choleric and prolix. Heavily indebted to Vaughan Williams and Howells in its modal a capella narration and to Strauss in its vicious caricature of the belligerent rabbis, spattered with quotes from Wagner, Bach and the Coventry Carol, and spiked with the blistering tuttis of Belshazzar's Feast and Verdi's Requiem, James MacMillan's St John Passion is as vulgar as it is violent.
Commissioned as an 80th birthday present for Sir Colin Davis and premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and an excellent chamber choir of professional singers last Sunday, the work's most alarming feature is a setting of the Reproaches in which Christ (Christopher Maltman) berates the Jews in a tirade of quasi-Semitic melismas. There is no hint of grace at the close, no sweetness, no tenderness, no redemption, save for the tinkle of altar bells over a turgid elegy for low strings. What Sir Colin made of this bitter burnt offering is anybody's guess, but if I were him I'd ask for book tokens next year.
A decade in development, composer-director Heiner Goebbels' Stifter's Dinge defies casual categorisation. Eighty minutes in duration, it is part-performance piece (albeit without performers), part-installation: a mechanised forest of water and light, scored for disembowelled pianos, spoken word (readings from Adalbert Stifter's Die Mappe Meines Urgrossvaters and William Burroughs's Nova Express, and interviews with Claude Lévi-Strauss and Malcolm X), Colombian, Greek and New Guinean folk-song, projected art (by Uccello and van Ruisdael) and ambient sound.
In the seductive darkness of P3 – a former construction hall in the University of Westminster – it was hard to tell whether the faint hiss of pipes was part of the score or simply the lungs of the building. A faint scratching sound could be heard, a soft, regular tapping like that of a baton on a music stand or a pencil on teeth, the twang of a single, struck bass string, the deep pop of plastic valves being opened and closed, and the cimbalom-like shudder of a wooden arm sweeping across the middle register of another instrument.
Like Music for Eighteen Musicians, Stifter's Dinge is both simple and highly sophisticated. Clock-time stops as minute changes of timbre in light, rhythm and pitch achieve vital significance. Three pools fill with water, then salt. Screens are lowered and raised. Fifteenth-century hunters can be spotted among the instruments, caught in vivid little boxes of projected colour. The playerless pianos chime like carillons or burst into frenetic stride-bass boogies; advancing on tracks, falling silent, separating into groups, retreating. The voices come and go: singing, reading, chatting, joking, talking of solitude, nature, the snap of an ice-bound branch. Rain falls and across the pools the Adagio of Bach's Italian Concerto – played in full – can be heard as though from outside a building.
I still don't know whether Stifter's Dinge is music or art. But readers with time and money to spare should check for forthcoming appearances in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey.Reuse content