Review: Workers Union Ensemble at LSO St Lukes and Michael Bonaventure's Automatronic Concert at St Laurence's, Catford

I had the chance this last weekend to see two very stimulating concerts of new music. Being closer to London these days certainly has its advantages.

On Saturday, the Workers Union Ensemble presented the culmination of their Constructing a Repertoire initiative. The ensemble is an unusual one: oboe, sax, piano, double bass and two percussionists. Not a lot of repertoire exists for that line-up, so the need to find new works is really quite pressing! The LSO Soundhub scheme together with support from the PRS Foundation has provided the backing needed for the Workers Union Ensemble to do just that.

I’d been looking forward to this concert for a while. I was eager to see how other composers had approached the ensemble; having worked with the group in the past, I know how challenging yet invigorating writing for such a motley collection of sounds can be. And here’s where the Workers’ real talent lies: in collectivity. In amateur hands the sound-palette of such a disparate ensemble could easily sound permanently disjointed. I can equally well imagine a professional ensemble making so much effort to achieve homogony that the character of individual instruments (and instrumentalists) would be lost. What each of the Workers has is a real command of their sound and a true sensitivity to the sounds of their colleagues. But this isn’t just the product of excellent musical training; it’s the product of a collective mentality – a sense of shared ownership over the ensemble, the pieces and the sound they present at any given moment. In the very best way, there’s no real sense of leadership. This allows the ensemble to access and to explore fully every sound and every nuance at their disposal, from the most unrefined, tatty grunts (and I honestly mean that with the utmost affection) to the highly polished sheen you’d expect of a class-act. This was real music-making in all its glory. Plus, it was nice to share a few beers with them again.

Perhaps the real highlight of the performance was the competition. Out of the eighty-plus entries submitted to their call for works, the ensemble played four in this concert. The audience was asked to vote on their favourite, which won the Heidi Cupp Award and a secure place in the ensemble’s permanent repertoire. All four pieces were exciting and extremely well composed. George Christofi’s Dancing Shadows was extremely well orchestrated and unusually brief. The length didn’t bother me – in fact I consider it a strength – but I do wonder whether the piece was too active. This is quite a difficult problem to pin-down in that I’m not sure it’s a problem at all. Christofi’s intention was to ‘re-shape and re-size’ musical ideas, taking his cue from the way in which shadows ‘do not correspond to the real figure and size of the object blocking the light’. For me, the level of activity stopped me from appreciating these re-castings as much as I would’ve liked. Mind you, it’s possible to argue this was his intention – to shift everything so quickly that you never get a true sense of shape. Certainly, listening again and again would yield great rewards by revealing more and more.

Amber Priestley, a composer I’ve come to know through our involvement in Writing the Future, produced but walk softly as you do. One thing I like about Priestley’s music is its unmistakable fingerprint. This is doubtless a result of her interest in open forms and varying degrees of open notation, which she approaches in a very individual way. The sounding results can be extremely coarse, at other times extremely refined, but always unmistakably the work of Amber. I’d anticipated a piece that made full use of the enormous sound range the ensemble affords. I was wrong. The piece focuses on interpretative temperament – the emotion, expression and attitude of performance. The technique is simple: get the performers to play through the score several times, each time differently. If you’re tempted to think this is a cheap approach I urge you to experience the piece. And I use the word 'experience' quite deliberately. This is more than just listening - it’s watching and feeling. And yet there’s no sense of Romantic (capital R) indulgence. but walk softly as you do has remarkable poise; it’s like a cross between Haydn, Feldman and the kind of sound you get when you doodle musically at a piano, half daydreaming.

David Kirkland Garner’s Ritual made full use of the rhythmic, earthy quality of the ensemble. I’d describe the piece as a kind of upbeat, chamber-music Rite of Spring with a sprinkle of Xenakis-like gall. Indeed, the programme note was littered with words like ‘barbaric’ and ‘heavy-handed’… good descriptions. A great deal was made of the primitive, binding nature of basic repeated rhythms. This is music that relies fully on gesture. Personally I would’ve liked a little more exploration of some of the piece’s ideas. The risk with this kind of composition is that the effect becomes more memorable than the affect, if you catch my drift. Nevertheless, this was a strong composition with a striking sound.

I had the great pleasure of being introduced to Jay Capperauld just before the concert started. Discovering that he’d come down to London for the first time I felt slightly paternal, I must say. As if the excitement of having a premiere in a major international city wasn’t enough, he’d been trying to ‘do London’ (in the most practical sense) for the first time and on his own! Brave man. And what a nice fellow he is. His piece, Dehumanised Shock Absorbers, had caught my attention previously on account of its programme note. In essence, this was music based on the phenomenon of the shock absorbing mechanism on portable CD players – a phenomenon because the darn things never seemed to work. I’m a huge fan of glitch music and I was born in 1984 (portable CD players all-round), so there was a lot here that appealed. I was also terrified. This piece could so easily have been gimmicky – a few beats missing here, a weird noise there. And then there’s the awful problem of trying to balance something ‘normal’ with something ‘disruptive’. Would the ‘normal’ be tonal, generally pleasant and familiar for the sake of being comfortable (read: was this going to be banal for the sake of being liked)? Would the disruptions be placed in direct opposition generating a really tedious, over-done binary? There was so much promise in this piece and yet a real danger of plunging into the realm of the worst kind of cliché. The piece started. The ‘normal’ music was indeed quite pleasant with some tonal leanings. And then came the ‘CD skips’. Remarkably, Capperauld managed to sail his piece straight into the most dangerous waters and come out the other side completely unscathed. The ‘dehumanised’ element of the title helps explain why. This wasn’t a battle between ‘normal’ and ‘other’ – not an age-old narrative in which normality emerges victorious, nor a tired example of ‘anti-normal’ beating down the familiar in an ‘up yours tradition’ sort of way. The outlook was more balanced. In one moment the ‘CD’ works as it should; in another it does something different. Both sounds are interesting. This was the philosophy I took from the piece. And the dehumanised performance instruction added another layer of performance interest. This was music that so utterly needed to be devoid of sentimentality to work, and the Workers Union Ensemble pulled it off perfectly. My only criticism was the work’s final tutti gesture. As the piece progresses the ‘failures’ become more frequent until the ‘CD’ finally gives up. To me, having a held sound at the end was reminiscent of a Classical/Romantic symphony; it gave too much emphasis to the failure aspect (which came dangerously close to feeling victorious). I also think it gave the work a closed, linear trajectory that it didn’t really need. For me, I would rather the piece either broke-up into a thousand pieces or simply cut-out (or something along those lines). That said, I enjoyed Dehumanised Shock Absorbers very much. It was approachable without being twee, it was very well managed and it surprised me in a way I didn’t expect to surprised (you might say the surprise was surprising). I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that it won the Heidi Cupp. And I was pleased – I voted for it (not that the decision was easy).

There were seven (!) other pieces in the concert, too! I shan’t go through all of them. Needless to say the standard of playing was extremely fine. Particular highlights for me were the Workers’ rendition of Laurence Crane’s Old Life Was Rubbish for double bass and three people bowing one vibraphone, and the endings of Matthew Kaner’s Organum sextuplum (cum tintinnabulis) and Ryan Latimer’s The Primate Horrific or Jumpity Jim Hath Little Intelligence, both of which cast new light on everything that went before them in really special ways.

And so, after the applause subsided, there was beer. Much beer. Which felt quite natural. Leaving aside the fact that most contemporary musicians have semi-alcoholic tendencies, the Workers’ attitude to performance and to themselves as an ensemble/collective makes for a very relaxed concert experience. Watching the Workers Union is not like being at your average concert. There we were in the multi-million pound surroundings of LSO St Lukes, but I felt like I was at a friend’s house enjoying my time with good company. Going to the pub just felt right. So much so I missed my train. Ah well, the great thing about the south east is that there’s always another.

On Sunday I made my way to St Laurence’s in Catford for a very different kind of concert. It was the final instalment of this year’s Automatronic series – a celebration of music for organ and electronics. Unfortunately, due to a minor (*cough*) transport issue I missed the beginning of the first piece (Huw Morgan’s Sarsen), although I got to hear a bit through the door. It makes little sense to talk about individual pieces in this concert, it was more of an overall experience. There was no clapping between pieces, there were no announcements and no interval sliced the concert in two. This was one continuous performance experience. Michael Bonaventure’s playing was sensitive and dynamic, yet always somehow in keeping with the highly meditative surrounding of St Laurence’s. I say this as a distinctly non-religious person. The inside of St Laurence’s in Catford is an amazing space – acoustically fascinating, architecturally striking and beautifully lit. In there you can concentrate on whatever you like; the space seems to offer itself with open arms to whatever your contemplative needs, be they religious or otherwise. And Bonaventure’s playing, however animated, never threatened the serenity of the room. Likewise, Stuart Russell’s command of the electronics meant that, even when window panes rattled, you never felt that your concentration was undermined.

Alongside Huw, the composers were Michael Bonaventure himself (Barrow and Rearmost Odd), Avril Anderson (Rest Assured), René Baptist Huysmans (Glough) and Luiz Henrique Yudo (Deux Voies). There were a few particular highlights for me. The concluding performance of Rearmost Odd was made extremely powerful by reducing the lighting to the glow from the large wall-mounted halo above the altar – a significant architectural feature of the room. Rarely have I felt that physical, sonic and mental space have been so well balanced. A truly remarkable eight minutes. I also greatly enjoyed the second half of Glough by René Baptist Huysmans. The ‘beast’ established at the beginning and soon captured is left to die slowly. But this was not staged spectacle, not a hunter lauding it over his defeated prey. Instead this was (to me at least) a shared experience. I didn’t just hear the sound die, I felt it die, I shared the time and space in which that death took place. The ‘death’ is, of course, purely metaphorical. But the experience of sharing a space with a sound as it evolves, and really feeling like you are sharing that space, is something that doesn’t happen often enough in performance.

The rest of the music was great, too. And I quite enjoyed the free wine afterwards as well. Like I said… new music and alcoholism go hand-in-hand. Luckily I managed to catch my train this time. It’s the little victories.

All in all I had a fantastic weekend (until I got home on Sunday night, but that’s a different story). I heard some fantastic and very varied music and I met some lovely people. Mission accomplished. Thanks to all those that made it happen.