The death of avant garde improvising pianist Cecil Taylor at the start of the month provided an interesting counterpoint to Thursday night’s concert at the Southbank Centre with Nicolas Hodges and Colin Currie. How far really is the world of free improvisation represented by Taylor and others from the similarly chaotic-sounding, though often rigorously composed, music of tonight’s composers Stockhausen, Feldman and Birtwistle? At any rate, two pieces on tonight’s programme leave a significant proportion of their overall sound up to the impulses of the performer: Feldman’s piece for solo percussion King of Denmark lets the percussionist decide exactly which instruments are used, only stipulating that the high, middle and low-pitched sounds on the graphically-notated score are sounded by the performer’s hands or arms. Meanwhile the score to Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke V features no time signature, allowing the performer to proceed with the piece’s angularities at their own pace.

Colin Currie © Linda Nylind
Colin Currie
© Linda Nylind

Both pieces received engaging interpretations. In King of Denmark, Currie made expressive use of toms and small gong in particular, with the agility of his movement around his assorted instruments making him sound like a one-man gamelan. He was especially engrossing when he took the dynamics down as low as possible, his fingers barely scraping the skins of his drums so that the sounds were almost imperceptible. At points, he could barely be heard amongst the rustlings and breathing of the audience, his efforts blending with the sonic ambience of the room, encouraging us to consider how a musician’s silence can have as much to bear on a performance of music as the sounds they make. Meanwhile, in Klavierstücke V, Hodges deftly executed Stockhausen’s demanding writing, with scurrying clusters of high notes in the right hand and depth charges in the left. The two pieces were performed as part of a suite, bookended by a new work by Harrison Birtwistle split into two sections. Intrada for piano and percussion is meant to see the keyboardist move from piano to harpsichord and celesta, though Hodges only played piano (and a smattering of percussion) in this UK première performance. This was something of a pity, since it may have benefitted from some additional textural variation. At any rate, in a concert in which abstraction levels were off the charts, Birtwistle’s slightly earthier style was a friend to the ears, with persistent pedal notes and even repeated ostinatos to hold on to.

No such tethering for the alien soundscapes of Stockhausen’s landmark 1960 work. Kontakte exists in two versions – a purely electronic piece and one which adds piano and an assortment of percussion. It has been said that the latter version is inferior and was merely a concession to contemporary concert-goers who wanted to see more than just an electronic music boffin pressing play on a tape machine. Tonight’s concert put paid to such a standpoint, with Hodges and Currie proving that the interplay between two live musicians and pre-recorded sound is the very substance of the piece. Textural lines were constantly blurred, between acoustic and electronic, pitched or percussive: with eyes closed, it became difficult to tell who was playing what. Currie was more liable to look to his fellow musician, but it was clear that Hodges was also fully inside the music and alive to the ever-changing nature of the soundscape, alternating with aplomb between fleet-fingered ripples and keyboard-mashing stomps. He was also masterful with percussion, whether teasing out the resonances of his large gong by scraping it or creating earsplitting crashes. Both musicians’ immersion in the piece could be seen in their occasional synchronicities with the electronic elements, such as the almost calm, droning moment in the final third of the piece and near the beginning, when a deep electronic tone blended with a clang from Hodges’ piano to create an expansive, subaquatic texture.

A word must be said about the sheer invention of the electronic element. With its seemingly endless array of textural permutations – from scatalogical squelches to metallic undercurrents to the quacking of android ducks – it still has the power to shock and stands up against much in the “experimental/noise” bracket of modern music. And I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that there’s something rather ghostly about experiencing it in concert: to see two live musicians imitating, playing with and reacting against sounds made by a long-dead composer makes one feel as if they’re collaborating with unseen forces – the ghost of Stockhausen hovering in the electronic ether. Currie, Hodges and their invisible ally created a meditative listening experience, one in which – without the traditional musical storytelling of progression and development – we were forced to concentrate only on the present moment.

****1