Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ERGODOS Day 4: Judith Ring: Portrait

More back room of the National Concert Hall action. Before I get to any discussion of the music performed here, there are some meta comments to get through, so if you do not like meta then skip through the next couple of paragraphs.

This was a concert of primarily laptop music. I have two real problems with this kind of thing. Firstly, you can never really see what the musician is doing, so I always find myself wondering how actually live any of this is – everything could be pre-programmed, with the musician hitting one key to set it all going. OK, so the musician might still be sitting their behind their laptop, hitting the occasional key or moving the mouse, but the suspicion must always be there that they are just playing Tetris or updating Facebook.

The other problem with laptop music is that it is visually very boring. I know it should be the music that matters (maaaaan), but the mind craves stimuli, and even with the best music in the world a lack of anything visual to engage with makes it easy to drift off into thinking about all kinds of things other than the music in hand.

I think these problems are not insurmountable. In performances of laptop music by people coming from what might broadly be defined as an electronic dance music tradition, there is a tendency to combine the music with projections of visual images. That gives the eye something to engage with. It does not solve the first problem, but it might distract from it. However, the visual images so served, while interesting enough in themselves, often do not really have that much to do with the music. Indeed, they may ultimately serve as a distraction from it. So I have been looking for a better way forward.

I think I might have something. Basically, at laptop concerts they should project whatever is on the musician's screen onto the wall behind them. That way people can watch how the music is being made (or how it is being triggered, or whatever). If the musician is just playing Tetris then the audience can vicariously feel their excitement as they slot the little blocks in place.

The other thing about this concert that got me thinking about how we consume music and so on was the introduction by one of the festival organisers. He made the usual introductory comments, and then said that although the performance would comprise several individual pieces, we were not to applaud between them but to wait until the end. This got me thinking about how classical music (and events like this that come from that tradition) take for granted that audiences are there to be regimented – told when to applaud, made to sit still, and so on. This contrasts with other forms of music, at concerts for which people are allowed to applaud when they wish and can wander off to go to the toilet or get a drink whenever they feel like it. I am sure there must be sound musical reasons why audience control is vital in classical music, but I suspect that factors relating to how high and low cultures are perceived are also important here. Audience control emphasises that classical music is a serious business, one requiring total audience concentration, unlike the frivolous music emanating from other traditions. The different audience requirements must work as an effective barrier to entry into the world of classical music, both old-school and contemporary.

And so, following that long preamble, to the music. Judith Ring was today's guest curator, playing mostly her own music (on a laptop), but handing over to a couple of guest stars for some of the pieces, and having them join her for some of the pieces. Ring's first piece was rather striking, being based on a load of samples of mezzo-soprano Natasha Lohan's voice. From the programme notes I understand that the samples were treated electronically, but Ring layered and combined them to produce an odd overall effect. I was not so gone on the ensuing collaboration by two of her guest stars. It was an improvised piece, with one of them on piano and one on laptop, but it all seemed like the wrong kind of experimentalism – people dicking around on stage, creating a sound that is not going anywhere.

One collaborative and improvised piece was a lot more enjoyable was this avant garde hoe-down that had Judith Ring playing with Linda Buckley, Jonathan Nangle, and David Bremner, the first three of these on laptop and the last on piano. It might be that having a load of people on laptops gets around the visual problems of the instrument, particularly if they are all staring at their screens with the kind of looks normally seen on the faces of worried stock market traders. I have no idea what any of the three laptoppers were doing, but it looked very difficult.

Laptop panda


Anonymous said...

Re audience control at classical versus other gigs, amplification or lack thereof could also be a factor in how the two traditions came about perhaps? Angela

ian said...

I think that would have something to do with it, but it is not something you get as much (or at all) in some other un-amplified musical traditions (e.g. English folk music or Irish traditional music).

ian said...

In the particular case of the Judith Ring concert, the music was very amplified.