If you want to gorge yourself on all the weird and confusing in cutting-edge music, the London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF) is the place to go. After a two-year hiatus, he returned in June to one of those post-industrial spaces – this time the former Woolwich fireworks factory – that are beautiful to look at but lacking in comfort. At the end of the evening, my bench felt extremely hard. However, it made me think: where is contemporary classical music going?
Normally, this festival is a powerful reminder that modern music has an incredible wealth of styles and aesthetics, which can feel like joyful anarchy or depressing proof that the world is going to dogs, depending on your temperament. Here, it is the neo-Dadaists who cheerfully make fun of the old classical pieties; over there the performers on turntables and laptops; in another corner the many disciples of Philip Glass; in yet another, composers who imagine themselves to be the next John Williams. None of these can claim center ground, as there is no center.
But when I emerged from the penultimate night of LCMF, I was struck by the fact that modern music was heading in a discernible direction. It’s not because a style has emerged triumphant. In fact, there were as many ways to make music as there were performances, some barely counting as music. There was a Ben Patterson “symphony” that involved spilling ground coffee on the floor. There were Japanese filmmaker Stom Sogo’s hyperactive experimental films, a simultaneous assault on ears and eyes. There was an abstract and aloof cello concerto by Tyshawn Sorey, an orchestral piece by Oliver Leith that sounded like a romantic piece had been fed mind-altering drugs, a gripping turntable performance by Mariam Rezaei. In previous years I’ve seen even more bizarre juxtapositions, with live poetry and Dadaist theater mixed together.
Faced with this mad profusion, you stop worrying about finding coherence and continuity. Instead, you take what comes in the spirit of amusement, outrage, or boredom. The decor encouraged him. We were constantly ambushed by something coming from an unexpected direction. Just as an orchestral piece ended in the farthest corner of space, something else came to life on the second stage from the left, and then after that the screen above our heads suddenly filled flamboyant images. There was no time to scan the program to see what was going on – it was too dark to read anyway. So finally we gave up trying to figure it out and accepted that the evening was just “one damned thing after another”, in a good way.
Historically speaking, what kind of show offered 10 minutes of something, followed by another 10 of something completely different and seemingly unrelated? Answer: the variety show. There are precedents for cutting edge art presented in this way. When Italian futurist Luigi Russolo first performed his intonarumori (noise machines) for a London audience in 1914, it was during a variety show at the Coliseum. In the 1920s, music hall and variety shows were the favorites of Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie; a ballet like that of Satie Parade is essentially a series of “tricks”, with no real dramatic narrative. Going back further, the courtly entertainments of the Renaissance and early Baroque were full of unimportant scenes and dances, inserted between the serious drama.
As the years passed and the idea that art was something higher and more serious than mere entertainment took hold, these inserts began to seem awkward. By the middle of the Baroque, they had disappeared. The “tricks” were all great for vaudeville and music hall, but the art itself should make sense. Another symptom of this growing seriousness was a tendency to cultivate the various art forms separately, each with its own academies and institutions: art galleries for art, concert halls for music. Thus was born the concept of “pure music”, which exalts abstract forms above those tinged with pictorialism or narration. Symphonies and sonatas were rated much higher than ballet scores. This purist tendency reached its peak with the modernist wing of classical music, where forbidding complexity was de rigueur.
However, the simple joy of the anarchic and the inconsistent can never be suppressed for long. I got the strong impression here that the cult of “pure music” and high art was buried, or at least given a big kick in the back. Of course, this couldn’t be a complete revolution: some of the “turns” would have been booed off the stage of a real variety show. But still, something new was in the air. I think it’s time for LCMF to go all the way and offer strong men and dancers. And a few cushions on those benches wouldn’t hurt.