The works of Anton Webern – famously described by Stravinksy as “dazzling diamonds” – have been “unwrapped” as part of The Rest is Noise festival this month. This was a timely project, as the output of this Second Viennese School composer has often been misrepresented due to its considerable (and problematic) impact on 20th- and 21st-century music. Making a contribution to this year’s festival, the London Sinfonietta’s Landmarks: Mapping the Landscape of Modern Music series seemed to promise a detailed and sensitive analysis of Webern’s works, collaborating with video artist Netia Jones to unlock a world of hidden insights. Oddly enough, it was an investigation that did not allow the music to shine. Since a lot of effort went into this project, it is worth considering in greater detail where such an inventive programme went astray.

Anton Webern in Stettin, October 1912
Anton Webern in Stettin, October 1912

The Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise follows Alex Ross’ acclaimed study The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007). Unfortunately, several aspects of Tuesday’s Landmarks event jarred awkwardly with Ross’ observations. For example, the concert’s compulsive need to present interrelated media is parried by Ross’ claims that “Intellectuals of fin-de-siècle Vienna were much concerned with the limits of language, with the need for a kind of communicative silence... Webern’s works hang in a limbo between the noise of life and the stillness of death”. Rather than enjoying any communicative silence, the audience were assaulted with jittering film footage, photographic portraits superimposed to a degree that would rival Pablo Picasso’s cubist paintings, Etch-A-Sketch line drawing, majestic panoramas of mountains and lakes, quivering spider webs and dandelions, garbled remarks from Schoenberg sprawled across the screen, and intermittent audio recordings blaring through Dolby Digital speakers. In this instance, the “noise of life” had certainly triumphed.

The audio-visual installation not only intruded upon the listener’s space but also that of the performer. Sarah Gabriel’s rendition of Webern’s early work Three Lieder after Avenarius (1904) was somewhat overwhelmed by the three gigantic photographs of her face looming over the stage. Busied by superimposed foliage and Blaue Reiter-style brushwork, the imagery only left viewers like myself yearning for actual reproductions of Wassily Kandinsky’s early prints. Tossed upon a sea of tentative musical experimentation and Doppelgänger portraiture, Gabriel was unable to establish a connection with this repertoire. Similarly, Mark van de Wiel’s performance of Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op. 5 (1913) suffered heavily from reed interference and failed to treasure gestures such as the clarinet’s single-note pulsations that vie gently with the piano’s exotic chimes at the end of first piece. Webern’s Three Little Pieces for cello and piano, Op. 11 (1914) were equally uncared for by Tim Gill with missed opportunities for textured projection of harmonics. John Constable’s piano playing persisted with the pedantic attitude of an accompanist rather than a conspiring expressive voice, and was therefore lacking in luminosity. At core, one felt that these performances compromised the richness of the Second Viennese School output by deferring to a preconceived multimedia performance and its imposed aura.

What could have prompted this collaborative enterprise? One answer might be found in Julian Johnson’s book, Webern and the Transformation of Nature (1999). Keen to locate Webern’s offerings in the wider culture of late 19th-century Vienna, Johnson (present at the post-concert talk) elegantly denies the commonplace claim that such music is merely abstract sound. Webern had inherited a musical language steeped in references to the natural world: as he set about redefining the parameters of space and time in music, this past language was transformed, the idea of nature going “underground”.

“Nature, in Webern’s music, is never a spectacle to delight in through its consumption”, Johnson is careful to point out in his book. Yet, Netia Jones’s video art, packed as it was with natural references, veered in this direction. While the Three Traditional Rhymes, Op. 17 (1924) enjoyed a secure performance from Sarah Gabriel, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (1909) and Webern’s larger-scale works seemed no more than soundtracks. The sophisticated recasting of romantic musical language was consumed by the audio-visual presentation. Our performers were simply dangling like puppets at the mercy of every multimedia transgression.

For all the wrong reasons, this concert did succeed in alerting its audience to the varied implications of Webern’s music. We can only hope that his work may soon receive the detailed on-stage reading it deserves.

***11