I love eating out, yet I hate cooking programmes. It is perhaps for the same reason that I’m suspicious of ‘Music and Conversation’ events. Whilst interested in the process and the thoughts of composers, I’d rather these were presented on their own without feeling that the ‘conversation’ part of the concert explains the ‘performance’ part. So it was with the trepidation of an irregular Ready, Steady, Cook! viewer that I arrived to hear Peter Wiegold and his quartet of merry improvisers perform and discuss. To my delight, it was really rather good.

Peter Wiegold, © Marion Trestler
Peter Wiegold,
© Marion Trestler

After a brief introduction explaining that the first half would be a ‘conversation sandwich’ and that the genesis for the evening’s improvisatory pieces were lines of poetry given to the composer a few weeks before, Wiegold’s quintet began. The first, jazz-flavoured performance felt a little timid... At least, I felt there was more to come from the exciting (again jazzy) orchestration of double bass, violin, clarinet, percussion and keys, with the exciting and important element of electronics built into the soundworld through Wiegold’s fingers and the double bass.

The conversation was intriguing, so much so that I’d have liked to have room for more than just one audience question. Wiegold spoke interestingly and convincingly on how and why improvisation is important to him, and why it should be to audiences too. He reminded us of the heritage and tradition of improvisation and the composer-performer link that can be such ‘fertile ground’ for music making. All this was garnished with self-referential, oh-too-provocative semi-tongue-in-cheekery, such as ‘It’s too easy to be perfect’ and (more seriously and logically) ‘There is no morality [in music-making]’. But here is the problem with music and talk combos (and cooking shows!): I don’t want to see/know the process (open kitchens are as far as I will go). So the music directly after the talk was perhaps more difficult to enjoy on its own terms as we watched the processes unfold with fascination rather than simple sensory enjoyment. It was, however, a joy to see the music directed from the keyboard à la classical-and-earlier music (something important to more and more composers today, such as Thomas Adès). It was also a joy to see the continuation of the lineage of improvisation with music that was visceral, aggressive, yet vulnerable, and which contained the sight of the percussionist using all parts (particularly his bottom) to damp the growling bass drum!

The second half was pure concert, and an absolute triumph. This surprised me, as evenings of music by one composer using the same instrumentation can feel a little one-dimensional: this did not. The three pieces that were left – again, each based on a supplied line of poetry – created a fascinating, cogent and convincing programme; it felt much more like one large work with three movements. A considerable triumph considering the pieces were written so quickly and were the product of exploring improvisatory space rather than strict notation. My particular favourite was the second: based on the line ‘Towards the sea-lit sky’, the electronic elements of the ensemble really shone, in what can only be described as a pastoral movement. The gradual introduction of thunder-sheet provided mushy, unpitched elements that, as it turned more towards pitched wobble-board effects, led back to an abstract, rhythmically driven section that was simply fantastic. Where earlier in the evening I’d found the sections with strict rhythm and pulse to be the least interesting (perhaps as they most resembled that genre I so little understand – jazz – or perhaps because the mark of bad improvisation is a never ending, never-changing loop of material upon which to place irritating solo lines), in the last piece of the second half the driving crossed rhythm made for a fabulous finale.

This really was an example of fine playing and great music. One can only feel that even if a more structured approach to making music is your bag, the closeness of performer and composer really is something to be encouraged. Wiegold’s musicians were without exception outstanding and from working with him understand his vision for spontaneous, physical, quick-witted music. I should think all who heard this concert would be a little closer to ‘getting it’ too.