Though I was certainly not outraged, I was yet somewhat disappointed of missing the other performances from this festival in London. Session Two of Nico Muhly’s curated A Scream and an Outrage at LSO St. Luke’s on Saturday, 11 May 2013 was a compelling programme, thanks to its fluidity and connection between the three works.
Three pieces were performed at Session Two—2 of out the 3 being UK premieres: Nico Muhly’s Three Songs, and Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer. Apparently already performed on this side of the pond, Terry Riley’s Tread on the Trail, came between the other two works.
Much like the performance “warm-up” entrance of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, where the repeating keyboard bass line and vocal narrative transitioned into the first act of the opera (Knee Play 1), Muhly’s meditative free-form drones had taken the similar approach in Three Songs, with the composer on melodica (and computer programming), Nadia Sirota on viola, Allan Clayton as the tenor vocalist, Pekka Kuusisto accompanying on the violin, and Liam Byrne on viola da gamba. It only made sense to offer an homage to Robert Wilson’s direction, as Muhly himself was once a protégé of Glass (whose 20 Etudes for Solo Piano were performed throughout the festival.) Three Songs was mostly a work in a calm, mournful sereneness, with a few climaxes at some points. There were actually two songs with texts (Part I: Always for the First Time and Part III: Love), as the second song was a heightened violin solo that bridged the gap between the two. It was a beautiful and straightforward testament of long awaited romance and complex love. Much like a ship headed on the horizon, Clayton’s performance carried the audience with patience and sweet attentiveness. Part III ended rather abruptly, though to give credit to Muhly, that approach could only “speak volumes” (as I am referring to his 2007 debut album).
With a hint of the iconic In C, Terry Riley’s Tread on the Trail was a nice transition before the interval. Performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Tread on the Trail featured experimental sounds and atmospheric textures, also in C major, with funky bass clarinet improv from Ken Thomson, rhythmic pulses on the piano accompaniment by Vicky Chow, complimentary bow techniques from Ashley Bathgate, and other interesting soundscapes throughout the rest of the ensemble. A combination of general rock motives, light tangos, and jazz textures, Riley’s subtle approach of a maverick-like sound mass of American musical gestures was the most appropriate before the last piece. Even though the building climax at the end was not entirely convincing, Riley’s aesthetic is still influential and timelessly unique.
It is no surprise that the last piece on the concert, Steel Hammer, was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music. Set to text by the composer herself, Julia Wolfe delivers an interesting and provoking Appalachian musical commentary on the mythical Ballad of John Henry, which pertains to the conflict of man’s ability as a steel-driver with the steam powered hammer. Performed by the All-Stars, and Trio Mediaeval on vocals, this 90 minute performance was also conducted by Ken Thomson, who has recently replaced Evan Ziporyn in the ensemble. The continuous ballads of Steel Hammer seemed to float one into another, much like driving across the American frontier, yet subtly recognizing the differences in landscapes over a slow period of time. Pertaining to this legendary human vs. machine folklore, the composer indicated to the audience that Steel Hammer comments on the way information travels and grows. Much like the “game of telephone” where the message is altered and diminished as the information is passed on, her first ballad Some Say offers beautiful repetitive harmony on the text in Some say he’s from: Some say he’s from, some say he, some say he’s from, some say, some say he, say, he. The remaining followed: The States, Destiny, Mountain, Characteristics, Polly Ann, The Race, Winner, and finally Lord Lord. Interesting repetitiveness on the naming of states reminded me of the American cinematic “wild west” hero, while the beautiful glisses, cowbells, and edgy accompaniment in the ensemble were a telling foreshadow to John in Destiny. Due to old myths, do we really know John Henry’s exact true identity? Wolfe successfully brought that question to the table in Characteristics. Some peaks of this work had taken place in The States and The Race, with intricate adventurous counterpoint in the former, and climactic forceful dialogues between the ensemble and the vocalists. Though the industrial age of the steam drill inevitably becomes the Winner at the end, it is the celestial dreamy moments in Lord Lord that remind us that an old hammer still shines like gold. Furthermore, this performance was dedicated to English composer Steve Martland, who had died just a week before.
I’m not exactly sure if the subject matter pertaining to Nuhly’s A Scream and an Outrage was the appropriate title for this event, but it was stimulating and exciting to be a part of this uniquely curated festival, which diligently programmed works of a subtly provocative nature.
Brian Mark is an American composer currently living in London.