City Life

Reich
City Life
Turnage
Crying Out Loud [UK premiere]
Gordon
Gotham [UK premiere]

London Sinfonietta
Martyn Brabbins

Sound Intermedia – sound design


Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 11 March, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Leading up to the UK premiere of Michael Gordon’s Gotham, the London Sinfonietta built a programme with an urban flavour. Steve Reich’s City Life brings the sampled sounds of the city into the concert hall, whereas Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Crying Out Loud is less literal, but deploys the composer’s usual brand of scuzzy, jazzy writing that speaks of fast-moving lives and reflected neon; the promise of grit and noise drew a capacity audience to the QEH, including several parties of enthusiastic students who had been participating in projects with the London Sinfonietta’s education department.

City Life opened the evening in a sure-footed performance that brought out the subtleties of the work’s counterpoint. I have never found the work entirely convincing; the stuttering sampled speech can seem clumsy compared to the dexterity of contemporary hip-hop, for instance. But if the opening perhaps wanted for a little authentic New York energy, the third movement was captivating, fragments of speech taking on melodic patterns that passed seamlessly into the ensemble, offering a kind of inner city pastorale. Reich takes moments of hectic life and examines them in calm reflection. However, the work is far from entirely benign in character; the final movement concludes with advice to ‘Be careful’ and ‘stand by’, reminding us of the city’s dangers.

There was little danger in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Crying Out Loud, a two-year-old piece here given its first UK performance. Written for the virtuosi of Ensemble Modern, this is another of Turnage’s exercises in funked-up modernism. Turnage is a composer of great facility and the work offered some lovely touches, including a melody dovetailed seamlessly between oboe and clarinet, and a piquant chorale for woodwinds, the inclusion of an alto saxophone and two bass clarinets producing some fruity timbres. But the piece felt over-long and slightly direction-less in places, lacking a compelling narrative to keep this listener engaged.

Finally, we visited Gotham, Michael Gordon’s second collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison, whose visuals drew on archive footage of New York in the early years of the twentieth century, and finding moments of surprising beauty in the vanished everyday. Sadly, gremlins in the projector did for much of the first section, which left the music to stand on its own debatable merits. A founder member of New York noise-makers ‘Bang on a Can’, Gordon writes post-minimal music that fuses Reichian repetition with the visceral impact of rock; this work began in uncharacteristically understated mood, a tapestry of quietly ascending and descending scales to (eventually) accompany pastoral images of sheep grazing in Central Park. The middle section showed the city in all its noisy abundance: crowds embarking from the Staten Island ferry, multitudes hurrying through busy streets, and most of all the continuous effort to propel the city into the sky. For this, Gordon provided chugging Nymanesque chords, overlaid by increasingly frenzied glissandi howls from the brass. Finally, the city was brought up to date in a curious split-screen composition that was presumably intended to tie the themes of motion and stillness together, but lacked the impact of earlier imagery; thus the section relied on the strongest music in the work, which built up snippets of melody into frenzied (and phenomenally difficult) micro-counterpoint, depicting and embodying hectic and unceasing movement.

Technical difficulties aside, this was an assured and well realised work; however, where their first film “Decasia” offered a novel view of ancient film stock as metaphor for impermanence, New York’s propensity for self-dramatisation is familiar to the point of cliché, and the artists did not seem to offer any new perspectives. In particular, Gordon’s evocation of city life seemed simplistic compared to that of Reich, less a wander through the backstreets with open ears than a blast down the freeway with the stereo turned up loud.

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