Mortuos plango, vivos voco
Byron Fulcher (trombone)
London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble
André de Ridder
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 14 August, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This fascinating and invigorating late-night Prom from the London Sinfonietta had something of a ‘greatest hits’ feel to it, with audience participation at the end in the form of a new ‘piece’ from Matthew Herbert, the Sinfonietta’s Composer in Residence, which metaphorically had its ink still drying on the page.
To begin, the audience entered to the sound of 100 metronomes, György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique, 50 years old this year. The metronomes were placed on the back three tiers of the Royal Albert Hall stage. The effect on the ears was remarkable, beginning as if in a snowstorm of fluttering birds but gradually establishing a hypnotic rhythmic effect as one by one the metronomes fall silent. As the definition became more exact, the ear and eye were drawn to a particular metronome in the hope it might be the ‘last one standing’. The audience, initially restless, unsure if the performance had fully begun, fell silent as the piece reached unexpected levels of intimacy and profundity.
Then straight into Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V, which found Byron Fulcher fully in character. The piece is dedicated to the Swiss clown Grock, Fulcher dressed in a costume in his honour. The piece itself provided a reminder that the trombone can be one of the funniest instruments. Fulcher’s great sigh of “Why?”, a reference to an occasion when Berio saw the clown utter that very word, also elicited humour. Fulcher’s considerable virtuosity took the trombone through a kaleidoscope of sounds, at times sounding like a bi-plane doing a loop the loop, while the addition of effects through voice and mute was also superbly judged.
From one virtuoso to eleven, the Sinfonietta returned to one of Iannis Xenakis’s most enduring works, Phlegra (1975). This was a commanding and incisive performance, authoritatively conducted by André de Ridder, the quarter-tones expertly judged and striking colours given by fractious brass and febrile strings. Few ensembles convert ability to musicality as convincingly as the Sinfonietta; a better performance would be hard to imagine.
The lights were then darkened but turned to orange over the Arena, so that the warm glow secreted by Jonathan Harvey’s sound projection, Mortuos plango, vivos voco, could be fully appreciated. This remarkable blend of sonorities derives from two sources, the largest bell in Winchester Cathedral and the singing of Dominic, Harvey’s son who was chorister in the cathedral from 1976 to 1980. The sounds, fed through the IRCAM computer and equipment in Paris, are remarkable, allowing time for meditation and to marvel at the bright trebles and sonorous bass. An example of Harvey’s unique appreciation of sonic colour, Mortuos plango, vivos voco has a deep and lasting effect.
We moved from a period of stillness to one of gathering speed with Louis Andriessen’s De snelheid (Velocity), which built up a considerable head of steam in its 18-minute duration. With percussionists David Hockings and Serge Vuille manfully taking on their tasks as woodblock lynchpins, Joe Cooper achieved considerable power from his bass drum and tom-tom interventions. These percussive building blocks provided the foundation for this deceptive piece, which under the close guidance of André de Ridder and the scintillating input of the musicians gave the impression of journeying up to a mirror and passing through it, a theme explored by Tom Service in conversation with the composer, whose energetic and enthusiastic input was relevant and amusing.
Following music of such volume and energy with John Cage’s 4’33″ was a masterstroke – the silence of the three scripted (and published) but bare movements was truly striking. What made it all the more pertinent was that the full membership of the Sinfonietta and Academy took part; they tuned and then sat – attentively – in silence. With every ‘performance’, Cage’s 70-year old work seems to grow in stature – probably because silence is such a rare commodity these days, everywhere. Audience members are all too often to be found on their phones between pieces (or sometimes during them!) … and so we came to Matthew Herbert’s contribution, asking the audience to do just that. Everybody with a mobile was tasked with sending a text message to themselves, so that the resultant noises could be used as part of “Live remix” – which also took strands of the pieces in the concert as recorded by a team of assistants.
This is an extension of previous Herbert albums which have followed a variety of events such as the life-cycle of a pig, a clubbing session in Frankfurt nightclub Robert Johnson, or a shopping spree around Tesco, using only the sounds from the subject in question. Indeed your reviewer is credited on a Herbert release, There’s Me and There’s You (2008), singing the word “knowing” as part of a hundred-strong team of participants asked to contribute one word each. On hearing this particular Proms assemblage of sounds, the initial reaction was extreme annoyance – for they are the noises that disrupt concerts and other moments of concentration and repose. Yet Herbert’s experiment was clever and thought-provoking, showing how the mobile phone has become far too prominent in everyday life. One can only imagine what John Cage would have made of mobiles, but it’s safe to assume he would have found a way to use them for creative means!