Alan Cooper Reviews: Freedom o(r) Speech

SIMON CALLOW: Narrator (Der Tribun)

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Saturday evening’s performance of three pieces by different composers was by far the most spectacular event that soundfestival has ever staged. The three musical ensembles that had been combined as one for this event represent the cream of musical talent from three countries, Belgium, Scotland and Norway. Along with them, Simon Callow, the narrator for the central piece, Mauricio Kagel’s Der Tribun, is not only one of Britain’s finest actors, he is also an experienced writer, the author of fourteen books including several splendid biographies. soundfestival and Aberdeen were fortunate in having been able to attract an artist of this calibre to take part in Saturday’s performance.

The theme of the concert was Freedom, Totalitarianism and Demagoguery in political life – something that is totally germane to the world we live in today. I am sure you can think of quite a number of politicians who qualify as demagogues today - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as the title goes.

The stage was jam packed with all the instrumentalists and singers taking part in the first piece. This was the World Première of The F Scale, (F for fascist), by the Scottish composer John de Simone. The singers were right at the back of the stage almost hidden from view. The orchestra was divided into two halves. On each extreme side of the stage was a harpist; on my left, two oboe players and a bassoon on my right two cor anglais players; on each side a brass section, trombones, horns and then trumpets at the rear; two baby grand pianos; one electric guitar and one bass guitar in the middle and a pair each at either side of string players, violin and violas.

The music itself used explosive chords and a generally rich and colourful palette. The sung text came from a questionnaire designed by, among others, Theodore Adorno who as well as being a philosopher and sociologist was a musician and composer. The questionnaire was supposed to determine how antidemocratic or democratic American citizens were after the War.

For his piece, John de Simone had chosen ten of these questions, the words of which were sung by the girls of Song Circus. The printed text in the programme helped us navigate the text although the greater part of the words did manage to project through the rich and powerful orchestral writing. There were softer passages to match some of the statements, for example “When a person has a problem or worry, it is best for him not to think about it…”

The writing was often astoundingly confrontational, alarming perhaps but also pleasantly coloured. I was reminded here and there of the musical writing of Kurt Weill or Hanns Eisler perhaps whose music was politically driven although these impressions could be pure coincidence.

The second performance, Der Tribun by Mauricio Kagel, grabbed you by the lapels and let you have it right between the eyes. The text, not just narrated, but brought startling to life by Simon Callow, was punctuated by military sounding music, largely brass. The words, “Tomorrow, tomorrow is mine and yours”, reminded me of the song sung by the young Hitler Youth boy in the film of Cabaret – “Tomorrow belongs to me”.

As the young man sitting next to me said – “Simon Callow’s performance was riotously funny but very scary too”. He was absolutely right. I know a few people who would have agreed heartily with much of what Callow’s character said. Remember too that the nation that produced Schiller and Goethe, Schubert and Beethoven, were completely seduced by a silly little man with a toothbrush moustache. Mere words can have a powerful effect.

Can music have such an effect too? This was the question at the heart of the third work in the programme, Louis Andriessen’s epic minimalist superwork De Staat. The words sung by the girls of Song Circus were from Plato’s Republic. Plato was the first great apologist for a totalitarian state, the first utopian. There have been many others since then. Beware of them; every utopia so far has turned out to be a hell on earth. Can music affect people to the same extent? Well composers of music for military bands, religious writers of Masses and Passions and even composers of advertising jingles would say so. However stories of Nazi concentration camp guards who would weep over Schubert songs then return to their murderous tasks with lightened hearts would seem to argue the opposite.

However, it was for us to just listen and be amazed by Andriessen’s composition and leave the theatre feeling that the final words on minimalism had just been spoken. Surely nothing could now be written that could take minimalism to a more powerful level. The orchestra was the same size and make up as it had been for John de Simone’s piece. A succession of hard driven rhythmic patterns merged from one into another. The two pianists were going at their pianos as if possessed. The harps added to their sounds. Brass, guitars and strings were hard at it too. The voices joined in with their Greek texts. To begin with, there was a pair of oboes on both sides but near the end, those on the right hand side changed back to cor anglais. It was an amazing experience visually as well as sonically. This was ultimate minimalism turning the orchestra into a musical juggernaut that could easily crush any opposition. It was a unique moment in the history of soundfestival concerts; something that will surely be remembered for a long time.

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