★★★★ Top 5 Best of 2013
Contemporary classical music wants to throw off its sober image, but which way to go? “Down and dirty” or stylish and chi-chi? A few weeks back the London Contemporary Music Festival tried the former, in a Peckham car park. Last night the London Contemporary Orchestra tried the latter at the converted railway shed in Camden known as the Roundhouse.
It was an enchanting, faintly absurd, exhausting evening, which began a few hundred yards away from the Roundhouse, at the top of Primrose Hill. Here, in the setting sun, the orchestra’s string players performed Zipangu, a wonderful late work by Canadian composer Claude Vivier inspired by rituals of the Orient. The sounds were reflected back at us by specially-designed wing-like structures using (so the glossy programme book told us), “sustainably sourced timber ribs and a selection of eco-friendly skins”. It was done with superb fervour, but the passing dogs and great views of London’s skyline were inevitably a distraction.
Then helpful stewards supplied us with headphones so we could listen to Edmund Finnis’s Colour Field Painting, a downloadable, gently melancholy “walking piece” for the journey back to the Roundhouse. Once inside the gloomy space, one’s eye was caught by an assemblage of three metal articulated arms hanging from the centre-point of the ceiling, each bearing a light. Each light traced a fascinating pattern of interweaving motions, the lower one at a graceful dancer’s pace, the others more slowly. This was Conrad Shawcross’s installation Timepiece.
It was a happy accident that Timepiece was installed there, but its suggestion of wheeling temporal cycles was exactly right for the music happening down below. This consisted of four pieces from Stockhausen’s final, unfinished cycle of 24 pieces entitled KLANG, one for each hour of the day. Endless care had been taken to put us in the right mood. Cardboard coloured specs were issued, so we could view each piece bathed in a different colour.
The performers were in vivid white costumes, courtesy of Vivienne Westwood. There were little exquisite mouthfuls of appropriately flavoured food on offer, one for each piece. “Saffron has a singular, metallic, somewhat unsettling flavour, much like Cosmic Pulses,” said the programme book about one of them.
Some may find all this hopelessly pretentious, but I found it refreshing to see new music presented with style rather than po-faced seriousness. And at bottom it was serious, because the pieces themselves were so massively uncompromising in their strangeness, and were played with such devoted care.