We’re all consenting adults tonight, in for an evening of potential torment at the hands of four extremely accomplished Dutch experts. As we wait, we’re eyeing an ominous device. Rearing up from the floor, it initially resembles a homemade shower cabinet, adapted to work as an electrocution chamber.
Any second thoughts?
The towering gizmo is the Octachord. It’s a nine-foot sound-sculpture (to be precise, an electrophonic harp) doing double duty as accompaniment for Mondriaan Kwartet – but that’s for later. Right now, its main role is to focus our attention. Eight metal extrusions like park-fence railings (actually tubes holding the Octachord’s strings and movable bridges) jut up from a chipboard sound-box, sitting on a set of squat castors. Hugged by a tracery of control wires and delicate devices, the tubes ascend to a cross-brace like an oversized hash sign.
Like many sound-sculptures, the Formica surfaces of the Octachord and its festoonings of light-industrial debris give it a frail, domesticated Heath Robinson structural logic, offsetting its intimations of menace and tortured electricity. You could imagine it sitting in the corner of your spare room, exchanging polite machine-conversation with the boiler. But you wouldn’t want to imagine it roaming the house in the dead of night: looming towards the bedroom door, exuding fat blue sparks…
I was mentioning torment? That’ll be courtesy of John Zorn. For as long as he’s been blowing frenetically over jazz and hardcore art-rock, this viciously intelligent post-modern saxophone maven has doubled as a modern classical composer. His waspish chamber music dominates the Mondriaan’s repertoire tonight – and when I say “torment”, I mean it literally.
By Zorn’s own admission, the splintered suite music of ‘The Dead Man’ is a detailed representation of a sadomasochism session in progress. Violins, viola and cello conjure the impact of blows and the rests of anticipation; the distortion of twists and cruel stretches; the shocks and the sensuality. If this sounds like sensationalism or game-playing, then bear in mind that Zorn apparently practices what he’s preaching here. If he’s setting up as an ambassador for the joys of S&M he makes a compelling job of it, by writing music that’s as eerily seductive as it is violent.
As for the performers, Mondriaan Kwartet are a New Music string quartet par excellence – an effortless collective embodiment of Dutch cool and elegance – but they’re clearly brimming over with the enjoyment of physical and audience challenge. They dive passionately into Zorn’s music with its hornet squeals; its sudden pops of ordnance; its super-pianissimo glass-pane skitterings of bow on strings. The Dead Man itself sounds like nothing so much as music for duelling crabs – perilous music, with its structure continually threatened by tensile collapse. The concerted classical discipline and harmonies are beset by savage scrapes, and by drifting descending tones and atmospheres that alter the air like eerie lighting effects. When they’re not slithering their bows over the strings, the players rattle them against the fingerboards; or swat at the air with them, making muted whip swooshes. Over the top of her viola, Annette Bergman’s eyes flick from colleague to colleague for cues. On the execution of a particularly tricky Zornism, a broad grin flashes across her face – guileless, yet mischievous.
Setting Zorn for a while, the Mondriaan move to ‘Stringtones for String Quartet’ by Dutch composer Toek Numan. Reflecting his work in dance theatre and film soundtracks, Numan’s piece is presented in highly visual terms – performed in near-darkness accompanied by film projections, a rotor of light passing across gelid red tiles and flickering and fractionating into restless patterns. The music itself is a shudder of anticipation, broken by staccato plucks before it’s allowed to go far in sustaining itself: a drone undermined by quick strikes and harmonies, eroding backbone even as they provide an intriguing sour extension. Revealed in parallel, Numan’s work embodies and illustrates a dividing line between continuity and the disturbances arising in its wake.Throughout, its value seems to lie in the challenge of balance which it sets its players.
There’s a problem with this at first, as it seems that (beyond the admiration we can offer to the Mondriaan’s brinksmanship and precision) there’s little for us to grip out here in the audience. But then there are the flashes of small reward. A shared line of falling/rising harmonic keen from the violins. There’s a brief, bright glimpse of harmony as the Mondriaan power through a sudden and unexpected mosaic of notes (like The Kronos Quartet on full Manhattan throttle), only for it to disappear just as rapidly. These moments materialize more and more frequently as the piece progresses and finally ‘Stringtones…’ is revealed for what it is : a modernist’s veil dance – thoroughly orchestrated, but with its component parts almost always left entirely masked, or extracted and scattered across its length.
Throughout all of this, the Octachord broods onstage like a threatening science fiction prop. Appropriately, it’s finally brought into play for John de Simone‘s ‘Deus ex Machina’ – a compositional nod to the primal thrills of science fiction B-movies, in which the Octachord plays the Alien Menace to the string quartet’s Earthlings. At the Octachord’s controls, its creator Robert Pravda gets to play the obligatory mad scientist, but only up to a point. Unshaven, and sporting long warrior’s hair, he provides an air both of frizzy chaos and of gentle politeness. This sets off the Mondriaan’s collective neatness and precision before a single note is played.
The Mondriaan go to work around Pravda in a sawn-up staccato, one violin off on a gull-flight glissando above the dense, intense, angrily compressed structure. As bows swoop up and down to precise point on instrument necks, Pravda totes a seven-foot button-studded control stick with an air of mild trepidation. Finally, cued in by a two-note violin ostinato, the Octachord activates with a brutal transformer hum before swelling out to a factory bray like a clutch of singing drill-bits. Under Pravda’s gaze, flashing green lights crawl up and down the rods like slow abseilers, riding the bridges as they set the pitch. The sound is terrific – vast, oppressive and urgent harmonic waves.
Unfortunately, it’s immediately a fatal distraction from the quartet music. This vanishes into indifference as the Octachord rides balefully along within its own entirely separate space. Given a long solo passage, with many of its dancing lights alight, it renders us a wonderful unearthly noise like a glass harmonica being ravished by ravenous microscopic metal worms. Watching it chunter along like a psychedelic cathedral clock (or a captivating ‘Doctor Who’ relic), we forget all about the strings, and the composer.
With ‘Deus Ex Machina’ over and the interval in progress, I sidle up to the Octachord (alongside other nosy audients) and sneak a peek at Pravda’s copy of the score. Our explosive giggles prove that curiosity has finally cracked up the cat. The instructions from de Simone are simply to turn the Octachord on, to let the Mondriaan phase in with the string drones and come to a halt; and to then “do your thing for 2-3 minutes, or until audience is bored…” It’s a good joke. Still, it’s not enough to make up for the feeling that a marvellous sound-sculpture roar has been wasted – that it’s been bolted onto a halfway-interesting chunk of aggressive minimalism in a cavalier and casual fashion, only for both to fall flat. Yoked together, to death.
Another new work – the two-part ‘No.38 for String Quartet’ by Cornish composer Richard Ayres – begins with bouzouki-style picking. Armed with plectra, the Mondriaan members claw gently at the strings of cello, viola and violin for Part 1. Jan Erik van Regteren Altena’s first violin, is the exception: ejecting a thin strand of stressed melody, hurtling helplessly off the side of the instrument. Part 2 has the full quartet engaged in a hopping dance full of skidding harmonics. Dispatched with zest and vigour, it sounds like children’s skipping songs being enticed into a motorcycle formation, and then run violently off the road. Later on, other vivacious dances are sliced and diced in Ayres’ conceptual grinder. It seems that John Zorn doesn’t claim the monopoly on cheerful sadism.
However, Zorn does claim composer’s laurels for the evening, as the Mondriaan close the concert with his ‘Cat O Nine Tails’ – a masterfully disruptive witty soundtrack to an imaginary cartoon. Ripe with cunning flirtations with chaos – and peppered with a wealth of Americana – it offers the Mondriaan another opportunity to stretch out and relish. Scourging turbulence and shimmers cross over with jaws and saws; fragments of hoedown reels start up and are swallowed by silence, jump-cut with passages of rich serenity or sly threat. Inside its parade of styles and suggestions, Eduard van Regteren Altena gets to quote jazz bass on his cello, and Zorn also throws in a brief shuffled history of the fiddle’s musical journey across Europe and America via kletzmer, Appalachia and Hollywood. Certainly, there are gimmicks a-plenty – but here, as in cartoons, the architecture of gag and message combine, part of a bigger picture.
Robert Pravda & the Octachord online:
and also this article.