Friday, 13 April 2012

The golden age of cool

AUKSO CHAMBER ORCHESTRA Barbican

BRITTEN SINFONIA Barbican

LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA Royal Festival Hall

Radiohead's lead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, has for some time been attracting attention for his work away from the band. Many who saw Paul Thomas Anderson's extraordinary film There Will Be Blood (2007) were struck by the music's hypnotic, almost misanthropic glare; and further struck when they noted that the music, which is often unusually exposed, was by Greenwood.

Though not his first music for film - Greenwood composed the score to an experimental documentary called Bodysong, initially released in 2003 - it was his first highprofile soundtrack, leading to a string of commissions, including Norwegian Wood (2010), We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) and a further forthcoming project with Anderson. Another striking aspect of the score of There Will Be Blood was that much of it seemed as if it might be by Krzysztof Penderecki.

Penderecki has never composed music for film, although his early, avantgarde music features prominently in David Lynch's Inland Empire (Threnody For The Victims of Hiroshima, 1960) and, more famously, in Stanley Kubrick's great study of paranoia, The Shining (Polymorphia, 1961).

As it turned out, the Penderecki resemblance was intentional, the film score mostly being adapted from a concert piece written for the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2005, called Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which was an explicit tribute to Penderecki's Threnody. Just as Penderecki was interested in the early 1960s in adapting for traditional instruments the sound world and techniques made possible by developments in electro-acoustic technology, so Greenwood had been concerned to "translate" the hiss of analogue radio to string ensemble. More recently, Greenwood has composed 48 Responses to Polymorphia, which attempts to begin where Penderecki's Polymorphia leaves off, exploring the residue left by the build-up of sound and its strange, final crystallization in a sustained C major chord.

Both Greenwood pieces were performed together with their "originals" at a concert in Poland last September, repeated recently at the Barbican. Penderecki conducted the Katowice-based AUKSO chamber orchestra in Threnody and Polymorphia. Greenwood's works were conducted by Marek Mos, the orchestra's founder and music director.

The difference in conducting styles - between Penderecki's matter-of-fact technical direction, limited to giving cues and a beat where necessary, and the cartoonish antics of the flamboyantly attired Mos - expressed rather neatly the fact that the stylistic similarity between the two composers' works is less significant than the difference in artistic intention. Penderecki's works are both investigations of a particular set of musical possibilities opened up by a particular set of techniques.

They still sound fresh, if no longer shockingly so, because an excitement derives from the sense of compositional craft being developed in partnership with the aesthetic possibilities of what can be heard as music. Both are also relatively short, and their beauty derives partly from the concision and clarity of gestures which, once rolling, continue to unsettle the ear long after the final bar.

The two Greenwood works adopt Penderecki's tone-cluster techniques as one of a number of stylistic devices. The palette in the earlier work is more limited and has a correspondingly greater effect. In the 48 Responses, a tension is set up between a lush Bach-Stokowski sonority, based around a chorale-style harmonization, and the atonal clusters, while rhythmic gestures condense into sustained, dance-like passages which, thrummed out in unison with tapped bows and, later, shakers, seemed to push proceedings further and further in the direction of the nearest Latin nightclub. The idea is interesting enough, and there's no gainsaying the fact that Greenwood is clearly a musician of great talent, but it's a talent that needs schooling.

Both works significantly outstay their welcome and the transitions seem laboured and often arbitrary. More important, though, is an overriding sense that the techniques and sound worlds of Penderecki's early work are being mined because it has come somehow to sound cool. There is none of the white heat of genuine artistic exploration, and much more of a sense of trial-and-error experimentation, with one eye on fashion and another on the hobby shed.

Like it or not, the aesthetic of cool is definitely here to stay. Concert promoters have long been wondering why contemporary music lacks the cachet of its equivalents in the visual arts, and sounding (and looking) cool is likely to be the winning recipe. More and more interest, on both sides of the Atlantic, is being taken in a genre-crossing area of music-making which, for want of a better name, has become known as "indie-classical", characterized less by particular styles than by its refreshingly free-ranging audiences who are younger, hipper and - potentially - much more numerous than the one from which concert halls have traditionally sought sustenance.

This was borne out both by the full-to-bursting young crowds in attendance at the Greenwood concert and at one the week before in which the Barbican stage was given over to some of the biggest names on the New York indie scene, including Nico Muhly and Owen Pallett. Unlike Greenwood, both Muhly and Pallett come from classical backgrounds and have studied composition, but both have also worked extensively with rock artists, Pallett being best known as a solo singer-songwriter somewhat in the vein of Rufus Wainwright but with less famous parents.

The concert in question, which featured an excellent, expanded Britten Sinfonia, was centred on the premieres of two new concertos, Pallett's for violin and Muhly's for cello. I'm sorry to report that neither piece was up to much. The colours of Pallett's decidedly monochrome work were enhanced by the retuning of certain string sections, giving a pleasingly diffused air to the otherwise rather shapeless progressions. Even Pekka Kuusisto, a violinist whose body language is often as expressive as his playing, was rather muted, perhaps dispirited by the meandering profile of his solo part. Muhly's soloist was Oliver Coates, a wonderful cellist and inspiring figure on the London new music scene, but almost inaudible beneath the repetitious sequences distributed by Muhly among the orchestra. The second movement was the most interesting - though the cellist is silent for much of it - in its departures from postminimalist orthodoxy, with some lovely effects from very high string notes combined with doubling between the harp and woodwind which mimicked the plucked sonority of the harp by issuing dry staccato bursts.

A new tone poem by Julian Anderson received its premiere meanwhile at the more traditionally conceived concert given by the London Philharmonic, pairing Anderson's The Discovery of Heaven with Delius and Elgar. Anderson took his inspiration from the mystical novel by Harry Mulisch, but there is no programme as such. Instead, in three movements, over an all-too-brief twenty-five minutes, we are treated to a masterclass in the combination of orchestral colour and timbre with formal gesture. Almost Debussyian in the organic elegance of its form - which grows from the hazy sketches of the first movement through the bustling vernaculars of the second to a wonderfully passed, brassrich "hymn" of the third - there was more than sufficient finesse and beauty in this piece to make up for the worrying absence of these qualities elsewhere.

We are lucky, in the world of music, that links between craftsmanship and artistic value are still more or less intact. The sense of something being beautifully done still has impact and credibility. Perhaps this is a luxury in an age which thinks it can ill afford to invest in the levels of education and expertise needed to keep this culture alive, and it could be that the current golden age of British music is also something of an Indian summer. But we should enjoy it while it lasts.