Deep Minimalism festival review – exploring the minutiae of sound

St John’s Smith Square, London
A closing programme of compositions by Laurie Spiegel, Éliane Radigue and Edmund Finnis gave some focus to this festival’s slightly slippery concept

A weekend of concerts sheltering under the umbrella title Deep Minimalism seemed to cry out for further definitions. But like the term “minimalism”, the idea of deep minimalism becomes more slippery and harder to pin down the more, er, deeply you think about. Even if the programmes that the Southbank Centre organised at St John’s Smith Square did throw valuable light on a number of composers whose music doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, they also included works by such composers as John Cage and Galina Ustvolskaya, who wouldn’t figure in most definitions of what minimalism is, whether deep or not.

In the final afternoon’s session, though, there was more of a coherent sense of what it was all about. The programme was devoted to three composers, two of them, Laurie Spiegel and Éliane Radigue, who were colleagues and contemporaries in New York in the early 1970s when both were exploring the possibilities of composing with synthesisers. Spiegel’s music has remained enmeshed with technology rather than live performance ever since, and the three of her pieces included here showed how her determination to delve into the minutiae of sound has remained constant across five decades, even though the means of realising her ideas have moved from analogue to digital, from magnetic tape to hard disk.

The musical principle behind Spiegel’s Return to Zero, composed in 1970 on a Moog synthesiser, and Passage, which used a Yamaha keyboard 20 years later, is more or less the same, though the later piece is less dark and dour and does build to a radiant climax. A Harmonic Algorithm from 2011 sounds more complex, incorporating harmonies from Bach chorales, but it still basically concerns itself with a single sound mass and the musical information that can be painstakingly extracted from it.

In Spiegel’s work, rhythm becomes irrelevant, and it is absent in much of Radigue’s music too – even in the later pieces that use instruments rather than synthesisers. Occam I for bowed harp (2011), which was played with extraordinary concentration by Rhodri Davies, creates a compelling exercise in listening from never more than a couple of notes, with Davies using two bows across the strings of his instrument to create a continuum in which one pitch morphs seamlessly into the next, generating all manner of overtone effects in the transition processes.

A series of solo string pieces by Edmund Finnis, played by Daniel Pioro, Robert Ames and cellist Oliver Coates (who also acted as compere for the concert), seemed more concerned with the possibilities of electronic resonance, and how that might be used to explore the relationship between the sounds (mostly fluttering high harmonics in this case) and the space in which they are heard. Finnis’s rather over-tended, purely electronic piece, Point Blank Light, seemed to dwell on the same concerns, too. None of it, though, was minimal – and not much of it was very deep, either.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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