Carhorns or Coldplay? No Contest

Carhorns or Coldplay? No Contest

When I argued here recently that contemporary classical music was a good thing, I didn't necessarily mean 'honk a carhorn in my face for ten minutes in a very small concert hall'. This is, however, something which happened during Exo, one of Kings Place's 'Out Hear' contemporary music concerts, on Monday this week.

The piece was Plateaux for Two by Danish composer Pelle Gundmundsen-Holmgreen, a sort of space-duet for cellist and percussionist. The players - Clare Graham and Barnaby Archer of the Azalea Ensemble - performed in the aisle down the centre of the audience, rather than on the stage: an incredibly intimate place from which to honk incessantly, as Barnaby was obliged to do.

Not that I'm complaining. Well, ok, maybe I should have sat a bit further away. But apart from that I liked the piece. Each of the five movements approached the idea of a duet in different ways: sometimes the musicians played more or less together; sometimes they sort of ignored each other; in the last movement the percussionist didn't play at all and it was just the cello playing a strange broken line feeding back on the previous movements. Always, the music was abrasive, aggressive and impenetrable. And fascinating, obviously.

The rest of the concert was generally less superficially bonkers than Plateaux for Two but was still full of surprises. Chris Petrie, the composer of three of the concert's six works, had the percussionist play piano strings with a brush during Exo. Another Dutch composer, Poul Ruders, extracted mad sounds out of piano and brass in his huge piece Abysm, a work of a sort of trapped intensity which responded abstractly to three literary quotations. 'What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?' asks Prospero in The Tempest. Ruders's response was just as strange and mystic.

Maybe most bizarre to look at was the moment in Invisible Cites 2, for me Petrie's strongest piece, when the horn and trumpet players used water balloons as mutes. The musical effect of this may not have been quite as zany as the gesture, but this remained a great moment - a moment when I hope it wasn't just me who smiled and thought 'This absolutley would not have happened at a concert of either Beethoven or Coldplay'. It's not that contemporary classical concerts have a monopoly on weird and fantastic live visual experiences (I think we can all learn something from Janelle Monáe), but it certainly does produce a lot of them. Even if, rather than water balloons, it's just the sight of a performer engaging in mad acts of virtuosity, there is always so much more than the music at a contemporary performance.

I don't mean to say, obviously, that the music isn't interesting as well. This was a fantatstic evening of music from the Azalea Ensemble, conducted by Christopher Austin, played extremely well and more than a series of odd incidents. But I do want to point out that none of the music in the concert was dry or dull. It was cerebral, yes, but also superficial - sometimes garishly superficial, as my eardrums will testify. It was music which begged for attention, and hugely repaid it.

I feel this is worth pointing out especially after Guy Stagg reminded everyone earlier this week that Coldplay still exist. In the article he holds Coldplay up as an example of 'miserable' music and applauds them for it, as if they are somehow a charity case (he begins by asserting that 'Coldplay must be the least popular band in the world'). For Stagg, the dreary tedium of Coldplay makes them 'what life sounds like', and this is good and we should like them for it. (A more accurate take on Coldplay can be found here.) Stagg's conclusion is nonsense.

We don't have to settle for Coldplay any more than we have to settle for a dull and miserable life. Interesting things exist, in life and music, and if there is any connection between the two at all then we should definitely all be listening to people shoving water balloons up trumpets and honking carhorns in our ears.


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