Men at Schlagwerk
Percussion concert showcases theatre and extremity
The four percussion pieces that comprised the Centralstation concert on 1 August were so hugely divergent in style and substance that experiencing them all within the space of a single evening was tantamount to whiplash. Performers Håkon Stene and Christian Dierstein offered a fascinating contrast. Dierstein's playing was extremely introverted, almost mime-like, as if performing a series of sacred rituals. Stene was the diametric opposite, manic and flamboyant, recklessly hammering wine glasses and cracking Noh-like facial expressions. Both were fascinating to watch, and obviously devoted a great deal of time, effort, and patience into their performances. It paid off.
FRAMES has the subtitle "Musiktheater für einen Schlagzeuger", and it is as music theatre that the piece lays claim to its effectiveness. The percussionist is confined in a open cage of resonant metal strips, which he dutifully drops, scrapes, and wiggles. Musically there is a bit less to go on – theatrical sparseness perhaps being naturally more striking than aural sparseness – and a few gentle proddings into the overtone series towards the end were pleasant but not compelling. This piece demonstrated a naïve charm that, despite occasional absence of dynamism, shows pure delight in sound production.
Concise, clever opinions about the work of Johannes Kreidler are as ubiquitous as Braustübl in Darmstadt, and there is a tendency to treat his pieces as stunts and provocations rather than meticulously conceived explorations of form and meaning. But this is a facile approach to a deeply critical compositional practice. Fantasies of Downfall is a fantasia on the theme of downwards motion. Kreidler has previously said that he only composes where there is something to compose; the accompanying video of different forms of falling down has provided this compositional spur. It begins, in a recoil-inducing section, with a camera falling onto a guitar again and again while tremoli are played. Next the vibraphonist imitates a series of contours described by a foot stepping down from a bathtub. Next we see split-screen ping pong balls falling before a chromatic scale – a note series previously described as "stupid" by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf and "the bad infinity" by Kreidler's former teacher Mathias Spahlinger – is played through the length of a piano keyboard while the keyboard itself moves up and down: yet another rhapsodically succinct demonstration of falling down. Finally, Kreidler's face appears onscreen and is hit by a series of falling footwear.
Comedians have developed a certain rule of repetition (known as the "Sideshow Bob rake effect" from a Simpsons gag) that says that when something funny is repeated, it quickly becomes unfunny. But, if it is repeated long enough, it will become funny again. Kreidler is the only composer I know who's applied this principle to music, and if the reaction of the audience in the Centralstation is an accurate gauge, his application was very successful. But beyond a good laugh, Kreidler's vision of twentyfirst-century malaise – "I can't scroll on, I'll scroll on" – is as potent as ever.
S2 by Mark Andre is a study of resonant bodies. Objects are allowed to reverberate on timpani heads –the resulting phenomena are non unexpected to those familiar with the haunting yet warm soundworld of Andre. The piece gradually builds to a climax where the heads themselves are struck ecstatically by the percussionist's hands and provided a resonant breather between two aural assaults.
Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf has established himself, after a series of bitterly won intellectual battles, as a guardian and arbiter of modernity. His work purports to be Great Art writ large and, with no disrespect to Mahnkopf, it takes itself seriously. That a Mahnkopf piece would conclude with a performer violently vacuuming up shards of broken wine glasses would have been unheard-of before this concert.
For those following Mahnkopf, we could not help but to read it as an aesthetic repudiation of precisely the enshrined and arch-serious artistic paradigm that Mahnkopf has previously devoted himself to.
The piece piece to be rather brilliant. It was uncompromising and immediate. It worked as pure music, as aesthetically affirming as an aural document as any work in recent memory. It worked as theatre – Stene's furious leaps between powerdrills and gongs were positively acrobatic. It worked as immersion, a violent experience of a space being repeatedly emptied and filled, from void to super-saturation and back again, the atmosphere quite literally suffocating. And it worked as aesthetic theory, an uncommonly visceral claim made towards (at least for Mahnkopf) uncharted territory. It was really really really good.
As I mentioned before, these four pieces were 20-minute microcosms of four radically different aesthetic universes. The fact that such differences can coexist (however uncomfortably) in a single festival, let alone a single evening, is a small but strongly optimistic testament to Thomas Schäfer's tenure at the helm of the IMD, and highlights the importance of commissioning aesthetically divergent new compositions. It might not be very clear which ones are Great Art, or even successful, but that's not terribly important. One really only needs to listen. I'm glad I did.