VOYS: A Journal Exploring Sign in Sound
Volumes 1 - 5
Edited by Erik Belgum and Brian West; available from Voys, P.O.Box 580547 Minneapolis MN 55458, USA (2CDs a year)
VOYS is a twice-yearly magazine in CD format, exploring the outer reaches of literature and what could be called (given Belgum's disapproval of the term "spoken word" - see Erik Belgum Interview elsewhere) speech-based sound art. Volume 1 presents Raymond Federman reading his novel "The Voice in the Closet", with its haunted/haunting recollections of the family's Holocaust experiences; Volume 2, "The Electronic Voice" contains eight smaller pieces (compositions?); Volume 3 features three interpretations/settings of selected works of Gertrude Stein; Volume 4 presents Richard Grossman reading the Clown Chapters from his disturbing novel "The Alphabet Man", and Volume 5, "Family Album", consists of two of Brenda Hutchinson's radio documentary pieces.
The idea of presenting works of literature in audio form is not new: John Giorno's Dial-A-Poem movement and his subsequent Giorno Poetry Systems label released several key pieces by Burroughs, Carroll, Ginsberg, Anderson and others back in the 1970s (before drifting into uneven Indie Rock compilations with unreleased rarities by the likes of Sonic Youth, Coil and Psychic TV). Belgum and West's VOYS project also believes, presumably, that certain texts gain in some way from being heard as opposed simply to being read. This certainly seems true of Volume 3's Gertrude Stein material (most of which is pretty goddamn unreadable to start with), but Raymond Federman's cracked, emotional delivery seems almost to detract from the evident power of his writing. Reading, in the good old fashioned way, establishes a relation between text and reader that authors' voices only manage to screw up. I don't want to know what Federman sounds like, in the same way that I would hate to hear Céline reading from "Journey to the End of the Night", or, heaven forbid, Joyce reading Molly Bloom. (With Burroughs it was somehow different - that legendary sneering drawl became almost a pop icon in its own right - a spoken delivery brings those cut-up techniques to life in a way that a normal (silent) reading can fail to do; Erik Belgum understands this all too well, as his own "Blodder" monologues testify.)
If the written material is of a horrific and deeply disturbing nature, as is the case with Richard Grossman's evil clown cynically manipulating his serial killer Clyde Franklin, then I definitely don't want to hear anyone else reading it to me; the author's performance may be magnificent, but I prefer to confront strong material such as this in the privacy of my own head. In short, I wonder what exactly is gained by hearing it read aloud. Indeed, Volume 2's mixed bag of pieces raises the question of what Belgum and West's brief actually is: does any electronic work that includes or treats fragments of human speech qualify for inclusion? If so, at least half of the world's extant electronic and concrète music could fit the bill; I would argue strongly that Stockhausen's "Gesang der Jünglinge" is more about words than what's on offer here, from Scott Gresham-Lancaster's embarassingly awful "Whirlpool of Blood" to Richard Kostelanetz's inconsequential 14-minute dicking around with animal names. Some of the music is fine in its own right (especially the pieces by Belgum-acolytes Rob Constable and Eric Lyon), and would surely be more at home in music compilation projects such as The Aerial or Erratum. The genuine hörspiel, that work which falls neatly between the cracks of music, literature, drama and documentary is an elusive animal. Many fine examples exist, and we can hope that future volumes of Voys will seek them out; as it is, the material available thus far remains too closely attached to either literature or music to have found the middle-ground that the CD format can so effectively present.
(back to top of page)
Ensemble Modern at Châtelet
November 18, 1999
A sensual interpretation of Rihm by Salomé Kammer
A mass of contradictions, the music of Wolfgang Rihm (born 1952). How was it that this self-proclaimed fan of Lachenmann and student of Stockhausen was hailed as a New Romantic with the succès de scandale of "Morphonie/Sektor IV" in 1974? How can a work like "Jagden und Formen", a motoric 40-minute quasi-tarantella premiered tonight, seem both far too long and yet just the right length, far too texturally muddy and yet crystal clear all at the same time? Perhaps the answer to such questions lies in the intuitive nature of Rihm's compositional practice as he describes it; an obsessive re-worker of pieces (like Boulez, though in Rihm's case he actually gets round to finishing them..), he occasionally even writes additional instrumental parts on top of existing scores, "adding another layer of paint," as he calls it. The painting metaphor is significant (bringing to mind as it does another profoundly intuitive composer, Feldman)-Rihm has consciously and stubbornly avoided the dogmatic Darmstadt concept of his former teacher's Formschema, the idea that compositions can/should be planned out in advance, opting instead for a non-goal oriented approach: "We should learn to to understand the absence of a goal as an enrichment of artistic possibilities. The absence of a goal is a serious condition, and needs extreme imagination to do it justice."
a page of Rihm, courtesy of the Châtelet program book
|Like Kurtag, Rihm is fond of (re)grouping works together to form larger ones: "Trigon" consists of two "Sphinxirène"s and two "Form/Zwei Formen"s interspersed and followed by "Responsorium". A tour de force for soprano (tonight, the impressively half-hysterical Salomé Kammer) and ensemble (with prominent roles for double bass and harp), this extraordinary work manages to be utterly original in its vocal and instrumental writing while also looking back to the soundworld of Varèse's "Octandre" (the double bass grit against a backdrop of growling winds and brass) and "Intégrales" (the tight, motivic percussion writing). Rihm's fondness for repeating whole sections of pieces (once more Kurtag comes to mind, as does Messiaen) brings the listener's structural memory actively into play, something that seems rather rare in these days of New Complexity. At times it goes on too long (or does it?): the endless sextuplet chugging of "Jagden und Formen" leaves you breathless but totally in awe of the Ensemble Modern, tonight under the pristine and much-appreciated direction of Dominique My.. one wonders how much rehearsal time they had? Perhaps this hyperactive Ensemble can be persuaded to release tonight's two works as the latest installment of their impressive discography - if not, there are plenty of other works by Rihm to choose from: over two hundred, in fact. On the strength of tonight's concert we should be hearing a lot more of them.|
(back to top of November page)
1st October 1999
"Serious" is the adjective most frequently used to describe Luigi Nono (1924-1990) ("I never saw him smile," recalls Luc Ferrari), and his last three works are so forbiddingly austere and introverted that one wonders if Christian de Porzamparc's shiny state-of-the-art hall is the place to hear them at all (it has to be though, if only to appreciate fully Nono's mastery of sound in space, by positioning musicians around the audience and moving sounds about through multiple speaker systems.) Introverted, but not intimate: the largely static nature of "No hay caminos, hay que caminar... Andrej Tarkovskij" might invite comparison with Feldman, but while the latter's self-styled "flat surfaces" unfold gently over time, Nono's soundscape is frequently shot through with shrill brass and deadly percussion blows, gestures of frustration bordering on despair. While Feldman's music accepts and inhabits its duration with ease, "No hay caminos.." seems to fight against time's passing. Maybe it doesn't begin at all; rather than last for thirty minutes, the work ends for thirty minutes. Its harmony is acidic (prolonged semitones and minor ninths abound, frequent forlorn glances back to Darmstadt's idolatry of Webern), its melody almost non-existent (and Nono - an Italian - was most at ease in writing lyrical lines within the confines of serialism), and its rhythm - in the sense of definable pulse - absent: space, dynamics and timbre carry the weight of the discourse here (one wonders whether Nono had been influenced by the spectralists' godfather, Scelsi). The title, roughly translated as "we have no road to walk, [and yet] walk we must", apparently spotted by Nono on the walls of a 14th century cloister in Toledo, recalls the famous ending of Beckett's "The Unnamable" ("you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on"); both works seem to survey the human condition with the same fearless and terrifying honesty.
Anyone expecting light relief after this was disappointed; with the Südwestrundfunk Orchestra still on stage, lights dimmed to reveal violinists Clio Gould and David Alberman in place at opposite corners of the auditorium for "'Hay que caminar', Sonando", which followed almost without a break. This was Nono's last work, lighter in texture (obviously), though no less intense. Gould and Alberman were magnificent - the piece demands exemplary bow-control and mastery of dynamics: Nono frequently writes pppppp and expects it to sound significantly quieter than ppp. Shame we weren't told in advance that between each of the work's three sections the violinists move to different playing positions, ending up together on stage: inevitably, half the hall broke into applause after section two, breaking the spell somewhat.
In "Caminantes... Ayacucho", for contralto (Susanne Otto), bass flute (Dietmar Wiesner) two choirs (the Ensemble Vocal Les Jeunes Solistes), orchestra and live electronics - for discreet spatialisation rather than transformation, and very effective too - soloists are not called upon to display flashy virtuosity; far from it. The bass flute shadows the (deceptively simple) contralto lines like a breathy spectral echo, while Giordano Bruno's Latin text spreads out across the surface of the music in slow, sustained syllables (gone the fluid sensuality of Nono's early "Il Canto Sospeso"). It's not difficult to sing as much as difficult to pitch: the sight of fifty-odd singers banging themselves with tuning forks was incongruously amusing, if inevitable given the dense microtonal cloud of strings they had to fight through. "Listening to silence, the silence of others, is very difficult," wrote Nono; the concentration of the public by the end of the piece was so intense that I could hear a man scratching his chin twelve rows away. What a pity Nono couldn't have been there to take a bow with conductor Emilio Pomarico - he might even have smiled.
(back to top of November page)
Copyright 1999 by Paris Transatlantic