(Contemporary Music Venture: Concert 2, The Victoria Rooms, Bristol)
So often, especially in the world of journalism, one is instructed to make everything light, upbeat and easily digestible. Audiences, we are told, do not want anything which deals with the less palatable side of life, just cars and ornamental women. It was therefore exceptionally refreshing to see how concert number 2 of the Contemporary Music Venture – a series of concerts organised by postgraduate students at Bristol University Music Department – continued to usurp this trend of forced jollification and vapidity, with lovely results.
This second concert in the series was comprised of violin duos. At the epicenter of the pieces performed were Béla Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins, but around these circulated contemporary commissions, often in response to Bartók, written by students at Bristol. The catch was that many of the works were collected together in clusters of three, with the contemporary piece being preceded and followed by Bartók. This, the organisers explained, created little ‘Bartók sandwiches’ which welcomed applause only after one had got to the ends of both crusts, and not before.
As a foodstuff sandwiches are often eclipsed by the Antoinette-esque scones they crouch amongst and yet few consumers would claim to possess no debt to the Earl who created them. The Bartók sandwiches were a marvelous idea (and I am going to resist the urge to continue with a whole host of culinary puns right aboutnow). Despite being well-known pieces and being performed superbly, they did not eclipse the contemporary repertoire in between them. This is surely testament to how good the new pieces (some of which were premiered on the night) were. Float, by Carmen Ho, was particularly delicate and, as with the P J Harvey songWe Float, combined the ephemeral with depth.
Of the contemporary pieces that were not made into sandwiches, a special mention should go to Chris Skipper, who I last encountered when he reviewed an opera or two for me. On paper, Skipper’s appeared to be the most risky. Uhandi/Umrhubhe is a piece ostensibly for two South African instruments, only written for the Western Art Music violin. On reading, I wondered if this was going to be a case of intellect over aesthetics – especially for the listener untrained in music. As it was, this piece (premiered on the night) was a beautiful balancing act, the kind of music which takes your mind far away from the visible surroundings. I am thoroughly thankful for the sweet relief this provided after a day felt feeling rather ill.
And so to the melancholia. Spending intimate time with just the sound of the violin made me believe that the instrument is, like many religious holidays, always edged with subtle sadness. At first, I wondered if its historic association with various groups of peasants and nomadic peoples in part explains this. Groups of people for whom life is not shiny and silver-spooned. I later decided this explanation is fairly tacky and smacks of a middle class eulogizing of The Simple Life. Metaphorically returning News From Nowhere to the shelf, I decide the violin is beautiful only because it is not afraid to sound sad even during a generally upbeat number. Correspondingly, this is also what I have liked about the CMV programme so far.
Organised by postgraduate students, it has combined showcasing the best of the department’s performers with the best new writers. As a postgraduate who dwells mainly on Woodland Road and has little interaction with the Victoria Rooms-inhabiting Music Department, I have been struck by how well attended the concerts – and the recent Bristol Operatic Society production – are. Contrast this with the often fragmented attendance to events in the Arts Faculty and one can only feel slight embarrassment on the part of Arts postgrads – do we really have better things to do than listen to one another?
And so, hurrah for the Music Department. But what I have liked even more than tasting that illusive ‘community spirit’ and seeing young writers getting a genuine chance to perform their work – instead of endless discussions about Opportunities For Young Creatives – is that they have done so with a programme that does not yield to pathetic pressures to be crowd-pleasing. Instead of the equivalent of titillating stories about Lizzie Siddall in a bath, the CMV writers seem unashamed to engage with fundamental philosophical questions, in particular those connected with death, in a fashion that is sadly absent from much of contemporary criticism and, even, academic thought.
Which isn’t to say that I enjoyed a performance by a group of overly earnest navel-gazers. Indeed, Matthew Olyver, who both played the viola and wrote a piece entitled Tears of the Clown, followed his short description of alienation in the notes with the disclaimed: ‘Cheerful stuff!’ This gives the impression that there is less of a gloom and doom mentality present amongst the composers and performers and more a healthy reconciliation between the melancholic and the jovial.