Harrison Birtwistle's spirit of space
Spirit of space as well as spirit of place is being celebrated at this year's Aldeburgh Festival. The magic of perspective was present even before the music started with sculptor East Anglian sculptor Laurence Edwards' three nine feet high Creek Men (photo above) menacingly standing guard over the distant marshes.
Space and visual images were also at the heart of last night's double-header new music programme which included the UK premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's string quartet Tree of Strings. This totally convincing study in creative fragmentation started with the superb Arditti Quartet inhabiting a single musical and physical space at the centre of the stage. Then, as the thirty minute work unfolded they moved to separate and distanced spaces around the perimeter of the large Snape platform where they spoke with separate musical voices before individually, and silently, making their exits from the famous performing space. In the magical final moments, as the last member of the quartet, cellist Lucas Fels, stopped playing and left with his instrument, we were left wondering whether the Arditti were on their way across the wind-blown marshes to join the Creek Men.
I have for long thought that Stimmung is a superb piece of music but a miraculous piece of music theatre, and London Voices' exemplary performance, which concluded the evening, confirmed that. Space and visual images were again central, with the six white-clad singers individually moving from the audience to the stage at the beginning of the performance and tossing vocal lines across space during it. A great performance of Stimmung is the ultimate in teamwork, big companies should stop wasting money on expensive team-building consultants and simply send their executives to observe Stimmung being sung as it was last night - at just £10 a ticket think of the budget savings.
But despite affordable tickets neither the Arditti concert, which also included Birtwistle's Bach transcriptions, Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet and John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts (which made the new Birtwistle quartet sound positively familiar) or Stimmung were anywhere like full even after energetic marketing which included a late half-price ticket offer. However, what the audience lacked in quantity it made up with quality, Joanna McGregor, Sir Harrison Birtwistle and former Covent Garden and Channel 4 boss Jeremy Isaacs were just some of the celebrities in the rows behind us. As someone remarked to me, if Aldeburgh can't sell out a concert like this who can?
One smallish moan. Mains hum through the PA was excusable in 1968 when Stockhausen was composing Stimmung for six amplified voices and flaky valve (tube) PA systems were the norm. But things have moved on and the obtrusive 50hz buzz from the left speakers throughout Stimmung last night was inexcusable. But, carping aside, a quite magical evening, and it didn't rain on our between-concert picnic although the wind did blow the candles out.
They don't always get it right. But the magic of Aldeburgh is that, unlike so many of today's prestigous festivals, it is so much more than just a music factory. One of many heroes last night was local sculptor Laurence Edwards who created the Creek Men, and the evening made me think of American sculptor Richard Serra's words about his own work, "It's not going to change the world, but it can be a catalyst for thought."
* Barbara Hepworth's Family of Man sculture occupies the foreground between Snape Maltings and the Creek Men on the marshes, and also comprises three figures. Family of Man is on permanent loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in memory of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. But despite the title of the work Hepworth had a distinctly feminine point of view.
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