Friday, 4 March 2011
Banishing the mouse
I'm in danger of succumbing to a new addiction. In the past few weeks I don't just come downstairs desperate to ignite the gas beneath the espresso-maker. I also tune feverishly to Radio 3.
It began with Buchner. I read his plays years ago and have twice seen excellent productions of Berg's opera Wozzeck. But I've never seen the original plays performed. So when, by chance, I noticed that Danton's Death was being broadcast on Radio 3, I tuned to the station - and didn't tune away.
In the past Radio 4 has been my default station. But the new and views have weighed on me, as has the immense wordiness of it all. I spend so much of my life with words that every so often, I need a break - and the music on Radio 3, at its best, provides that.
But this week started unfortunately. Paul Dukas is composer of the week - and that should have been excellent, because I know so little about him or his work. It was a shame that, early on, the compiler of the programmes felt compelled to play his most famous work, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." I'd have liked to consider it in relation to the Goethe poem on which it was based but I couldn't. I've seen Fantasia. My mind was flooded with images of Mickey Mouse.
It was a relief, therefore, to find a piece of music which I could experience simply as music - which didn't crowd my mind with words and images but existed in sound and space, on its own terms.
I was at De Montfort University's Cultural eXchanges festival - an annual event that offers a range of cultural events, talks and debates - mostly for free - to locals in Leicester and the wider East Midlands. I've managed to attend a number of sessions but the one that stands out for me is the one that's hardest to describe and explain. Its resistance to description and explanation is one of the things I liked best about it.
Simon Emmerson's Memory Machine is an installation. I didn't know what to expect. What I found was a darkened studio - there were coloured lights and bean-bags. We entered in small groups, advised to walk carefully andlet our eyes adjust. Some people chose to sit or lie on the floor. I remained standing and, from time to time, walked around. My interest was in the sound.
When sound doesn't conform to the normal expectations of music - when it isn't in a definable strict form and doesn't include words - the only thing to do is to experience it and either succumb or not succumb. There were occasional sounds that seemed familiar - the fall of water, for instance - that conjured up ideas and past experiences. But other sounds I seemed to feel physically - in my body as much as through my ears. The sound came from different directions at once - the balance changed as I moved (as quietly as I could) across the studio. I felt at times excited - and at others intensely relaxed.
I couldn't stay as long as I wished. Perhaps that is as well. If I'd stayed too long I might have felt I was floating. As it was I had found, briefly, something I craved - a way of being that was neither speech nor image.
I suppose some people would dismiss such work as "avant-garde" or label it "difficult." I found it neither - but I know little about music. All I know is that sometimes, when I choose to experience a new work and am ready to accept what it has to offer, I discover new and unexpected sources of delight.
Note: The photograph is not associated with Simon Emmerson's composition. It was taken during a performance of Ligeti's Poeme Symphonique for a hundred metronomes at Covent Garden last year.