north east scotland's festival of new music

press reviews

Art and Music

Written by Alan Cooper

reproduced with permission

TADEJ KENIG Clarinet and Bass Clarinet,
Aberdeen Art Gallery

One of the most stimulating and unusual concerts so far in the whole sound Festival took place in Aberdeen Art Gallery on Friday 13th November. I cannot remember any other concert where I have been required to make a pilgrimage round the building in order to hear all the performances as we needed to last night; but somehow all this only added to the exotic appeal of the occasion. All four young composers were present last night, eager to hear the first performances of their works. Each had been asked to choose one exhibit currently on display in the Gallery as the inspiration or the starting point of a new composition.

Dr John Morrison of History of Art at Aberdeen University began by taking us on a tour round the four works chosen by the composers. He began by talking about the idea of synaesthesia. In its purest psychological form this is an interesting phenomenon. Certain musicians have claimed that hearing different notes makes them see colours. I have to say that none of this works for me. I have tried listening to notes on the piano and imagining what colour they would be. I get nothing at all and interestingly enough, for the people who claim this does work, they never agree on the same colours.

However, as Dr Morrison said, attempts to express paintings in music or poetry have always gone on. After all, what else am I doing when I try to translate listening to music into words that I hope others will understand?

The first piece we heard was by Gareth Williams and he had chosen what is usually called an "installation". This was Nathan Coley's There Will Be No Miracles Here. These words are picked out in dots of light hanging on a kind of notice in the main Gallery. For Gareth whose piece was entitled A Short Treatise on Love and Miracles this art installation has a positive message which he finds uplifting. He feels that it is an exhortation to us to go out and create our own miracles.

What about his music? Well it was a fascinating piece that worked on so many different levels. On top of the instrumental writing, it used a tape of an old 1950's recording by a pair of 1950's American Educationalists entitled "How to Teach Children the Wonder of Sex". As one would expect from such people, their main message was that sex is the high road to Hell. The work reminded me of an amusing piece by the minimalist composer John Adams entitled Christian Zeal and Activity where beautiful hymn-like strings are played beneath a recording of a crazy American Evangelist ranting on about a man with a withered arm. "What's wrong with a withered arm?" There was a similar gentle attractiveness in Gareth Williams's music. There was too undoubtedly a flavour of post minimalism here. As well as the echoes of John Adams in the second section, in the first, I fancied I heard something of the rhythmic insistence of the Phillip Glass classic Koyaanisqatsi. In the second part of the work the humorous connotations that always come to my mind when faced with American evangelists and even more so with their oh-so earnest sex educators was dissipated as the sentences on the tape became fragmented so that the significance mutated into a rather sad plea for love. Was the music there in stark contrast to the tape or was it the engine that transformed the significance of the tape from high comedy to something more serious? Certainly, for me, Gareth's piece was the most thoroughly perplexing and thought provoking.

On we went to the opposite side of the Gallery to hear the next two pieces. Gallowgate Lard by Paul Tierney was inspired by a painting of the same name by Ken Currie. On the internet, I found a poem by Rebecca Aikman which beautifully describes the impact of this picture. (For copyright reasons I cannot quote it here but you can find it on Display KIST Information Example.) It sums up the despair, suffering, fear and dark foreboding displayed so graphically on the face in the painting. Paul Tierney conveyed this set of feelings quite graphically using just three of the four players but with the most consistent use of advanced playing techniques of any of the pieces we heard; harmonics and playing beyond the bridge on the cello, flutter tonguing on the flute and clarinet and telling use of the darker colours of the bass clarinet. This was for me an exceptionally well crafted piece that made its point clearly and succinctly and the only piece in the concert to contain no reference whatsoever to minimalism.

For his inspiration, Oliver Searle had chosen Jesus is Condemned to Die by Damien Hirst. Two large carving knives surmount a cross half hidden in the shadows on which there is a skull and a crown of thorns. Oliver told us that for him this painting was more of a reference to a heavy metal record cover than a sincere representation of the Stations of the Cross. His most extraordinarily powerful piece, To Die contained references both to the horror of crucifixion but slowly mutated into something quite different as rock rhythms began to emerge slowly out of the dark abyss filled with the ominous and relentless tolling of bass flute, bass clarinet and slashing cello chords. This seemed at first a very simple piece but the imperceptible alterations in timbre and rhythm as the significance of the piece became more sardonic were handled with great mastery of the most nuanced and significant details of sound texture.

From these two rather dark paintings and the pieces they had inspired we were led upstairs to sit in front of High Tide, A Winter Afternoon by Joan Eardley and to hear Pippa Murphy's music of the same title. There is darkness too in this stormy seashore scene at Catterline which Joan Eardley has painted but it is also clearly a seascape which she loves and this too was reflected in Pippa Murphy's music full of atmospheric sounds of waves and wind and on Roberto Fabbriciani's flute, the sudden shriek of seagulls. Stirring somewhere within however and rising to the surface, I sensed the rhythms and sounds of Scottish dance music and for a moment, bagpipe drones. This was the piece that came nearest to some sort of synaesthetic fusion with the painting contrasting with the other composers' more cerebral reactions.

Oh dear, I have hardly mentioned our four magnificent performers, Richard Craig and Roberto Fabbriciani on flutes, Tadej Kenig on clarinets and Rohan de Saram on cello but surely I hardly need to. These are the world's finest exponents of the contemporary and experimental repertoire on their respective instruments. Our young composers could not have hoped for any more brilliant and accomplished performances of their challenging pieces and thanks to the sound Festival, that is exactly what they got.

  • Published on 13 November 2008
  • Written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with kind permission of the author.

events mentioned
  Date Day Time Location Event Details

Click on the short event titles above to see details of the events themselves.

13Fri 6.00 pmAberdeenRichard Craig and Roberto Fabbriciani, flutes, Tadej Kenig, clarinet and Rohan de Saram, cello
13Fri 7.00 pmAberdeenArt and Music
13Fri 8.00 pmAberdeenRichard Craig and Roberto Fabbriciani, flutes, Tadej Kenig, clarinet and Rohan de Saram, cello