The title for this Barbican event certainly threw up some interesting questions. Having failed to attend a riotous dinner party that was characterised by one attendee as “a scream and an outrage”, Nico Muhly set about curating a series of concerts under this title. However, no screams or outrages occurred this weekend. Instead the audience was greeted by the sandal-clad, ponytailed oracles of the New York’s fashionable downtown music scene, whose contributions were gently mesmeric rather than abrasive.

Julia Wolfe © Peter Serling
Julia Wolfe
© Peter Serling

It would be a mistake to read this disjunction between the title and content of the concert as the result of artistic floundering. After all, the “screams” and “outrages” that critics and audiences may have been looking out for are by now somewhat conventional. The factory of post-war musical trauma – bringing instrumental shrieking, sudden noise and disintegrating soundscapes to our concert halls since the mid 20th century – may never lose its aesthetic potency, but is (one hopes) becoming gradually outmoded as musical currency. In this way, Muhly’s deliberate elision of his provocative title made for an odd, yet inventive set of creative propositions.

Held at LSO St Luke’s, Session Two of A Scream and an Outrage began (as Session One had done) with drones executed by Muhly and his friends while the audience entered the Jerwood Hall. This was in fact one of Muhly’s tactics – “I’ve tried to invent a sort of social security blanket which is that there is going to be a team of us droning on a few of the concerts, and it’ll be casual and relaxed, and everybody will remain calm”, he remarks on his website. One wonders quite what dangerous threat had prompted this need to keep everyone sedated. Perhaps it was the impending launch of a ghastly party next door.

The UK première of Muhly’s Three Songs formed an effective opening to this programme. The composer’s fascination with drones (notably explored in his 2012 album of the same name) has led him to build varied drone forms. These were evident in this piece where the ensemble offered us glimpses of wavering pressure, strange inflections, impulsive twists and turns, and fluctuating intonation. Riding on the crest of this wave were Allan Clayton (tenor) and Pekka Kuusisto (violin), both of whom engaged in a sensitive dialogue of minimal gestures. The two surrealist poems by André Breton and Jacques B. Brunius may have benefited from the breadth of duration established by Muhly, but the sharp-nibbed penmanship of their writing was possibly neutralized by the composer’s gently sensuous style.

With Terry Riley’s Tread on the Trail (1965) the Ban on a Can All-Stars took to the stage to indulge in a little grooving and jiving. Energetic riffs were passed between the bass guitar and bass clarinet, forming an attractive cacophony of blues-inspired sounds. The performers succeeded in bringing this work to life, transforming the Jerwood Hall into an underground club full of hepcats. However, although this performance was greatly enjoyed, I felt its superficiality was exposed by the compositions programmed either side of it. Most noticeably, Julia Wolfe was able to integrate the drum kit into the fabric of Steel Hammer on a far superior level, while Muhly’s eloquent pacing of musical events outshone Riley’s thicket of clichéd improvisations.

Steel Hammer (2009) was the real gem of this programme, though it is in many ways an unwieldy work. The art ballad centers upon the life of American folklore legend John Henry, one of many slaves employed to work as a steel-driver on the railroads after the Civil War. The music charts the competition between Henry and a steam-powered machine to drill through the Big Bend Mountain. It was a competition that Henry won, but only to die shortly afterwards from exhaustion.

Wolfe provided a text for this composition that cleverly addressed the ambiguities surrounding the story. It was composed mainly of contradictions: of John Henry’s characteristics we were told “He was small / He was tall / He was black / He was white...”. Every other aspect of the story was presented through a similar bombardment of conflicting detail, shrouding the narrative in an aura of mystery. Trio Mediaeval and Bang on a Can gave a performance that was wholly evocative of the musical traditions of Appalachia, with soaring vocals, foot-tapping, whistling, humming and stamping. The length of this composition may have proved taxing for some. However, what Wolfe managed to capture so finely in this work was the fragile nature of slave existence and the extraordinary impact of storytelling.

All in all, it appeared that the outrageous party audience members had turned up for was either going on elsewhere or had undergone a curious metamorphosis. While Muhly excelled at constructing a playful forum for music-making, this programme was perhaps compromised by its preoccupation with negating old screams and old outrages: instead of challenging these aesthetic stereotypes with fresh contributions it tended to retreat into comfortable musings. Despite these shortcomings, what came across well was Muhly’s dedication to friendship amongst artists and his natural inclination to use this sense of community to creative ends.