Music: Take four notes, blend and repeat to taste
THE THEATRE OF ETERNAL MUSIC BARBICAN LONDON
Thursday 03 December 1998
Each exploration of a note's inner world, including timbre changes and sometimes clearly audible harmonics, evolved as a wave of sound: chiefly quiet, expanding from, and contracting back, to silence. Each instrument played only one note at a time, pausing before the next.
Even after some 50 minutes of the piece there were still only four pitches: the original F, B flat and C in close position, plus a higher B natural. And after focusing on different combinations of the upper three notes, including the top one alone, the performance finally returned to the F and B flat, to conclude after an hour and three-quarters.
This was the British premiere of La Monte Young's 1984 composition, entitled - with its creator's typical mixture of the poetic and the cumbersome - The Melodic Version of The First Blossom of Spring from the Four Dreams of China. The evocative lighting was, as always with his performances, created by Marian Zazeela, Young's wife. And the whole thing was pure - well, almost pure - magic.
Not for nothing is Young celebrated as the first true musical minimalist; the inspiration for the work we heard on Tuesday was written on a restaurant napkin in December 1962. This music is quite easy to follow, due partly to its effortlessly arch-shaped structure. It was apparent that the players were improvising on the basis of rules governing the possible combinations of the four pitches. Yet while the complexity of these rules sometimes made me feel excluded from the evident joys of improvising with them, one could figure out at least some of what was going on. The ways, for instance, in which - as the composer put it in an intriguing post-concert discussion - several players can "gang up" on a single note, probing and savouring it together. Only towards the end did my attention flag, as seemingly did that of some other members of an otherwise rapt and, for such largely unknown music, rewardingly large audience.
We have been well and truly spoilt in the past few weeks by the riches of the Barbican's "American Pioneers" season, as well as by other American visitors to the Planet Tree and Huddersfield festivals. Young hasn't been in this country since 1989, and this moving performance by the present incarnation of his group, The Theatre of Eternal Music, led by the cellist Charles Curtis and the trumpeter Ben Neill, was an apt climax to these celebrations. From his uncompromising musical stance to his leathered Hell's Angel attire (Alex Poots, responsible for the event, presented the composer at another talk, before the concert, with a matching jacket for his treasured 201 Levi's), Young is a true original, a marvellous pianist and singer. Will we now ever hear him perform in Britain?
Owing to a production error in yesterday's paper, the Elliott Carter review wrongly named the orchestra as the LSO instead of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. We apologise for this mistake
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