The Late Mix: Contemporary America

The Sage, Gateshead

12 April 2013

Northen Sinfonia at the Sage for the last concert of their "Late Mix" series. Billed as "Contemporary America", the bill was:

Steve Reich Violin Phase
Elliott Carter Quintet for Piano and Strings
John Cage Fourteen
David Lang these broken wings

Violin Phase was played with four live violinists (no electronics) and is absolutely stunning, an idea so simple but a work of absolute genius. Listening to a recording doesn't prepare you for how utterly compelling it is live, when you can actually watch the players' fingers. You think you can follow the individual parts, but after a while your mind plays tricks on you and you're convinced you're hearing parts that no one is actually playing. Best thing I've ever heard in concert. I would go and listen to this again. And again. And again...

The Quintet did nothing for me (which is how I usually feel about Elliott Carter). I can admire the cleverness of the writing and the playing, but... find myself just waiting for it to end.

Cage continues to hold a strange attraction for me. His music is always interesting and fascinating to listen to. Fourteen consists of pockets of silence from which instruments periodically arise to play a few notes then die away again. If there's a melodic or rhythmic structure, it's too slow and drawn out for me to identify, but the overall effect is hypnotically beautiful. It's tranquil, almost trance-like, but at the same time has you on the edge of your seat awaiting the next burst of notes. And it features prepared piano, but not prepared in any way I've seen before — the pianist doesn't touch the keyboard, he plays sustained notes by sawing fishing line back and forth around individual strings (so it's "bowed").

I still don't know if Cage was a genius, a charletan, or a practical joker, but I love the results regardless.

David Lang was the surprise of the evening because I didn't know a thing about him or his music beforehand, but I loved it. these broken wings [sic] is for violin, cello, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano, percussion, and lumps of dropped metal, and beyond that I'm not even going to try to describe it. Except to say that the first movement is some of the prettiest music I have ever heard, the second movement is devestatingly depressing, ending with the musicans walking around the floor and dropping thudding lumps of DIY materials, and the third movement is a funky, rhythmic piece that (Mr Lang might not thank me for saying this) reminded me of Soft Cell. I expected Marc Almond to come out and start singing at any moment.

So, I could have done without the Carter, but the rest of the programme more than made up for it.