Glasgow Minimal Festival Review

Monday, October 18th, 2010

I have been a fan of  “minimalist” music almost all my adult life.

The term is becoming more and more inclusive now, some might say fuzzy and nondescript, so when I saw that Glasgow Concert Halls were launching the festival Minimal, I wondered what co-ordinates and trajectory they would plot.

Whilst I have witnessed classic minimalist pieces appearing in Scotland over the years, especially loving Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of The Titanic and various Steve Reich and Michael Nyman pieces live, I was ecstatic that a more retrospective-like season of concerts was to take place here, as part of a three year plan of minimalist works to hit Glasgow in particular.

It will be interesting to see where this season goes. Minimalist music today is an ever-growing body of overlapping circles, where Arvo Part is packaged with John Cage and Terry Riley, who in turn can share space with neo-minimalist genres (and genres with their own unique histories) such as Dark Ambient, Dub, Art-Rock, Electronica and so on. The festival has gone in for an historical minimalist lineage, perhaps to appeal to the classical crowd initially, and show an establishment-like foundation. But it’s not all traditional ensembles, Minimal must also be applauded for including a Brian Eno piece at the outset, for a great live performance of Apollo by Icebreaker with accompanying Nasa documentary For All Mankind. (A live Eno appearance form the man himself would also be a future coup, hint hint!?)

I’m not saying that any of the pieces the festival chose were inappropriate, although I’ve always been uncomfortable with John Adams’ inclusion as a minimalist – and I felt that the New Romantics section of the weekend was a little too classical for my tastes – I felt they did a good job of balancing the weekend with an eclectic roster. And it was nice to have some great players. I just wish there had been a little more of the likes of the frankly stunning interpretation of the rarely performed Philip Glass piece “Music with Changing Parts” (again by Icebreaker). This was the sort of piece that I think defines the minimalist movement for me. Even now it’s still a pretty uncompromising piece for the audience, and I never used to enjoy the old recording I had of it, but with Icebreaker at the helm here, it became colourful and concentrated, hanging on to every bar and change in time signature and like a lot of Reich/Glass pieces, requires really talented and fit players. Hardly a dropped stitch in the whole hour. The highlight of the festival.

I think the reason I like pieces like this is that they are analogous in form and experience to a Sanskrit concept I like – Samhadi. Samhadi has it’s roots in Buddhist meditation – a term which describes a highly concentrated point of meditative experience and stability, arising from a solid and broad foundation. It is a term in which the practitioner can ask the question “are breadth and depth possible or desirable at the same time?” or are they mutually exclusive?

For me, Reich and Glass, some Eno and early Nyman, Terry Riley – these are the minimalists I enjoy, because the chromatic development of the score is restrained, and repetitive tones and polyrhythms are central. There is an irony here – freedom seems to arise on the audience’s part when we are locked into these grooves. This is precisely the thing that I can’t get the hang of in John Adams’ work. His scores seem too symphonic and rollercoastered for me. I think I tend to fall into the drone or rhythmic camp of minimalism and like the gaps between the notes or the zones brought on by skilful drones.

The trance-inducing intensity of the early works of The Michael Nyman Band, were for me, an endorphin-popping ecstacy when I first heard the band live, nearly twenty-five years ago, on a pilgrimage to London’s South Bank. I found the experience to be deep and concentrated and moving. And loud! There’s a piece called Knowing The Ropes – from Greenaway’s film Drowning by Numbers, which I feel is such a zingy, injection of pleasure. It’s fast yet melachony pomp, and it shakes you by the shoulders and makes you glad to be alive.

But the performance on Saturday was a mixed bag, mainly due to problems with the sound mix – especially noticeable with the collaboration with David McAlmont. It was a real shame. This is an odd partnership but it does work – although Nyman takes a back seat, out of respect for the voice, but you get the feeling that McAlmont’s voice just works with an orchestral backing and Nyman’s contribution seemed a little easy listening in places. Nyman’s habit of recycling old works is wearing a bit thin for me now also (In Re Don Giovanni again?), although I am still enough of a fan to buy a signed CD. He’s always been a ‘remixer’ of sorts with Drowning by Numbers for example, plumbing Mozart and coming out with some terrific adaptations, but this was a very mixed evening for me. Although the string section of the band are utterly mesmerizing to watch, throwing off polite classical protocol. The viola player in particular was a real treat to watch her flinging her bow about, grinning and dancing her bum around her seat. I just wish we could have heard them properly!

Other highlights of the weekend :- The Smith Quartet also on Saturday performed great versions of Triple Quartet and Different Trains by Steve Reich. Back on Friday, a composer I wasn’t that familiar with, Ingram Marshall, had a piece in the New Romantics cluster, but it was his beautiful tape/brass piece Fog Tropes has garnered him a new fan in me. A nice live interview with him also. I liked him, he was slightly bonkers.

On Sunday, there were three soloists playing some of the Reich Counterpoints, which were well intentioned, but the phasing on the violin piece didn’t seem to work live very well in this context, and electric counterpoint had a couple of mistakes in it which I felt the poor guitarist knew we knew as he didn’t come back on stage for an encore! I really felt for him. These pieces must be a nightmare for players. I feel bad even highlighting problems with any of these performances as I am so glad they took place at all here. But they should be the standard as if they were on the South Bank or Barbican. Special commendation for the visuals of these pieces however, all video feedback and simple shapes morphing into waves of decay and reformation again.

The finale of the weekend was a treat for kids, – a nicely edited film piece read by Lord of The Rings’ Billy Boyd alongside Philip Glass’s score for Icarus at The Edge of Time, a Scottish premiere adapted from Brian Greene’s book about a boy who flies close to a black hole. This was the SCO’s strongest performance of the weekend I felt. And also brilliant fun from the Glasgow Science Centre who had a portable planetarium where I fought off crowds of ten year olds so I could get in!

In all, Minimal was a highly successful and enjoyable weekend and I look forward to more treats coming up soon including Reich’s most lauded piece Music For 18 Musicians in February and also John Taverner and Arvo Part’s works at Kelvingrove the same month. I also wanted to say the audio clips on the minimal site were really well done and served a really good job. If I moan a little about some of the pieces, it is with respect of a programme that must have been difficult to aim and pitch. It was also brilliantly attended. I went to nearly every event and arrived back in Ayr shattered.

At this point I want to say that I also went around the festival making a sonic portrait of the nearby venues. I have a preview of it here, but will be posting the full version with art and liner notes in the coming week.


One comment on “Glasgow Minimal Festival Review

  1. dav says:

    Great review, and thanks for the mention of the visuals, which were, indeed, hardware feedback patterns created as live from obsolete harware- at the dismay of the AV hire company, dubious of connecting my sub-standard kit to their high end equipment.

    well spotted sir.

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