Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Nonclassical - one year on. Gabriel Prokofiev visits Exeter Bikeshed Sunday 23 September 2012

Gabriel Prokofiev
Introducing Sunday's Nonclassical night with a DJ set

Sunday 23rd September 2012 was (nearly) the first anniversary of 'Nonclassical' in Exeter Bikeshed.

Rebecca Willson
introduces the very first
at Exeter Bikeshed

On 2nd October 2011, Rebecca Willson stood in front of the Bikeshed audience for the first time to introduce an evening of the very latest compositions - for strings. In addition to Rebecca's viola, there were five other string players including Devon's 'Young composer of the Year', Michael Brailey.

This amazing sextet played music by Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Nonclassical founder Gabriel Prokofiev, and Michael Brailey himself. Just to round off the evening Emma Welton took over with a solo performance of James Tenny's 'Koan'.

An unfamiliar figure, Emma has since became widely known for her performances with 'Music on the Edge' (at Topsham and Drewsteignton) and 'Exeter Contemporary Sounds' (Barnstaple 25 Sept 2012)

Ruth Avis
joins Rebecca Willson
for the second
(photo: Cecil Hatfield)
Rebecca returned to the Bikeshed on 11 December with Ruth Avis (now Ruth Molins - married to guitarist Jesse Molins). There was more new music by Gabriel Prokofiev, Graham Fitkin, Michael Nyman, Michael Colquhoun & Somei Satoh. In addition to thrilling music, there were also unusually clear photographs of the performers - provided by a keen Exeter photographer, Cecil Hatfield.

Since then there have been many more soloists playing on the Nonclassical stage: guitarist Paul McGuire, 'cellists Hannah Willson and Rosie Lester, and pianist Peter Nickol.

Exactly 51 weeks after the inaugural performance, a record audience attended to hear a very special 'Nonclassical' recital at the Bikeshed. There was plenty to see and hear.

Rebecca Willson
introduces the
anniversary concert
Gabriel Prokofiev himself was here in person, playing out a DJ set between acts, and introducing the programme. Rebecca Willson and Michael Brailey introduced the acts and played many new pieces themselves. The line-up included many familiar and popular performers - apart from Rebecca and Michael, there were performances by Ruth Molins, Hannah Willson, Peter Nickol, and a special ensemble of Hannah, Rebecca, Ruth and Peter.

An exciting new addition was the 'Half Moon Assemblage'. The leader was Sam Richards, who was in concert with the 'Totnes Improvisers Orchestra' at Totnes and Dartington on Friday 24th August . (Read their report in the CJ programme for 4 September.) Their piece 'Vox Populi' involved nearly thirty musicians - two of whom were at Nonclassical as part of the 'Assemblage'.

Sam Richards played synthesiser (amongst other things), while Lona Kozik swapped her electric violin for the pea-green Bikeshed piano. Elie Fruchter-Murray could not be with us to play the 'cello. Instead Tim Sayer was here to play trumpet - and flugelhorn!

Rebecca Willson
'Tombeau de Messiaen'
Jonathan Harvey
Rebecca Willson opened the show with Jonathan Harvey's 'Tombeau de Messiaen' on the 'pea-green'. Rebecca has been doing post-graduate work on many new compositions at Brunel University, including the work of Jonathan Harvey. She was not initially sure that the complex interaction of piano and recorded piano sounds in Harvey's composition would be workable in the Bikeshed, but in the event the sound was perfect. With the speakers about five metres away, the two sounds were clearly distinguishable by anyone in the right position - especially if they could see Rebecca's hands. The interplay between recording and live performance was fascinating and an amazing pleasure to hear. A great start to the evening.

Michael Brailey took over with his violin and played two pieces with 'tape' (i.e. recorded sounds). He started with Jeremy Thurlow's 'Under the Shadow of Wings' with a background of conventional violin sound. Conventional, but haunting - the disembodied tremolo from the speakers picked up seamlessly by Michael on his own violin.

Michael Brailey
'Lylat' Anna Meredith
Developing the theme, Michael then played Anna Meredith's 'Lylat', with a more extreme backing of low rattles and bass sounds. According to Anna, 'Lylat' can be performed on any instrument in G major. It certainly sounded impressive on the violin. ('Lylat' is the name of a  blue-giant star in a fictitious binary solar system which is the setting for the fan-made internet game 'Shadows of Lylat' - nice link Michael!).

Unfortunately, Michael didn't give us an extract from Anna's 'Hands Free' which was performed by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at last year's BBC Prom (where the Aurora Orchestra also played 'Prokingrass' by a certain composer from Exeter - Michael Brailey). Clapping, body slapping and  Haka style chants - surprisingly musical and visually impressive. I think it would have gone down well at the Bikeshed, with enough people! (See the full BBC video)

Michael Brailey plays 'Roller'
his own composition inspired by the music of
Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós
Finally he gave us 'Roller', his own composition based on the piece 'Valtari' by Rejkyavíc rock band 'Sigur Rós'. (A strange name, even to Icelandic speakers - 'win-music' or 'triumph-rose' - the inspiration was actually the birth of lead vocalist Jónsi Birgisson's baby sister - Sigurrós Elín.)

Michael enthused that 'Valtari' is 'amazing'. It was soon apparent that his take on it is too.

'Valtari' is the Icelandic word for a road roller - and also the name for a a shot of 'Brennivín' (Icelandic schnapps). Sigur Rós bass guitarist, Goggi Hólm, the band's English speaker, says the music, like the road roller, or the brandy, just rolls over you - but in a good way!

Michael's violin composition did likewise.
Surf-lovers might think of it more as a 'mushy roller' than a road roller! It breaks gently and gradually. The nautical flavour is further enhanced by foghorn effects on the backing 'tape'.

As the last wave of sound rolled over the audience, gentle birdsong broke through on tape, and Michael stood frozen in total silence. The audience made no sound either. The wall of silence was so palpable that later-comers on the way down the Bikeshed stairs to join the audience were brought up short - as impressed by the silence as any music they might have heard.

'cello: Hannah Willson
violin: Michael Brailey
clarinet: John Welton
viola: Rebecca Willson

Sam Richards - toychestra
birdcalls and bells

Tim Sayer - ocarina
Sam Richards' 'Half Moon Assemblage' set up during the next break. Lona Kozik took the front covers off the green piano, and Tim Sayer brought his trumpet and flugelhorn onto the stage. Meanwhile Sam set up a bewildering array of toy musical instruments on a table by his synthesiser - his famous 'toychestra'. With so many instruments it was hard to predict which instrument would open their improvisation.

It was Tim Sayer's ocarina!

Lona Kozik - piano
Building on a simple theme, while sampling and looping the sound through some kind of electronic device, Tim was joined by Lona's feverish piano, and Sam's gentle and laconic synthesyser accompaniment. Sam also had time - and hands - spare to play his toy instruments. First brightly coloured handbells, which he extracted a note from using a double bass bow. Later a junior glockenspiel, kid's zither and 'whirly tube' were brought into the mix.

Sam also seemed to have the means to sample sounds and replay them, meaning that the sound wall grew ever denser and more overpowering. Tim switched between trumpet and flugelhorn, playing delicate phrases and long notes with a microphone inside the bell of either instrument - creating a sepulchral booming.

Tim Sayer - trumpet & electronics
Lona was limited to slightly more conventional music making on the piano, but had fun reaching into the works and extracting new and exciting sounds from the strings. Somewhere along the way extra sounds started to appear, and reappear. the babbling of a child and strange cries - terrifying and mesmerising, interspersed with the ringing of Sam's handbells. A concertina came into it all somewhere as well, I'm sure.

whirly-tube, trumpet - piano innards
flugelhorn !
bells, zither, xylophone - music boxes
Finally Sam introduced his master stroke - winding up five or more music boxes while sustaining a single note on the synthesiser - and piling them all up under a microphone to create their own cacophony - which the musicians used to build their improvisation to new height. As each box wound down the melody resolved a little more until one simple tinkling tune remained - then silence!

Perfectly timed for 30 minutes, the improvisation held the audience in a spell. Imagine ten times as many musicians, and a one hour improvisation, interspersed with poetry recitation and an impassioned demonstration by International Women's Art on behalf of imprisoned Russian musicians Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yeketerina Samutsevich and Mario Alyokhina (FreePussyRiot) and that's some idea of what 'Vox Populi' was like on 24th August.

As everyone digested the Assemblage's 'sample', the regular Nonclassical musicians prepared to play us out with a series of solo compositions and one last ensemble piece.

Ruth Molins warms up on alto - during Michael Brailey's DJ set

Hannah Willson and Peter Nickol
warm up on 'cello and piano

while Michael Brailey keeps the music flowing

Peter Nickol
'80 notes for V'
'Blue Note'
'Pentameries III & I'
Peter Nickol played three of his piano compositions. '80 Notes for V' is just that - a delightlful two minute melody of (presumably) eighty notes. The dedication is to 'V', who is Veronica Gosling, founder of Gallery 36 in Denmark Road and an enthusiastic supporter of new music. It was Veronica who first brought 'Music on the Edge' to Exeter! (see 'Time and Distance')

'Blue Note' from 2008 builds on the ideas of Red Norvo's 1935 xylophone hit, 'Blues in E Flat' for jazz octet.Whereas Artie Bernstein dragged Norvo's harmony back repeatedly to E flat on his double bass, Peter returned constantly to A natural with a repeated note on the piano.

Hannah Willson
'Song for H' by Peter Nickol
The effect was familiar - think of Malcolm Arnold's march for orchestra, 'The Padstow Lifeboat', where repeated blasts by the wind instruments - imitating the Trevose Lighthouse foghorn - keep forcing us back to D (the nearest conventional note to the pitch of the Trevose horn).

In Peter's composition, the uncompromising, repeated return to A was interspersed with lively invention and variety, a fascinating contrast.

Peter finished his solo section with two from the set of ten miniatures, (?)'Pentameries III and I' - played in reverse order, he said, to lead the recital naturally towards the piece by Morton Feldman which would end the concert.The first miniature was fast and lively, the second slow and thoughtful - enough said!

Ruth Molins
'Framing the Silence'
Michael Colquhoun
Hannah Willson continued with Peter's composition 'Song for H' (dedicated to Hilary Noakes). This piece is suitable for double bass or 'cello, but Hannah's 'cello was just right for Sunday's concert. Echoing 'Blue Note', the bowed legato melody is repeatedly and suddenly interrupted by single pizzicato notes. It's not immediately apparent where the sound is coming from, but Hannah is deftly plucking open strings with her left hand while using the other fingers to create the melody on the fretboard. Intriguing to watch, and to hear.

Rebecca Willson took over the piano, for an old favourite - 'Cold Wooden Window' from 'Piano Book number 1', by - Gabriel Prokofiev. Rebecca played 'Cold Wooden Window' and 'Black Sauce' from Book 1 at her second Nonclassical session with Ruth Avis. Ruth also revived the sound of that wonderful night with Michael Colquhoun's 'Framing the Silence' - on alto flute!

Dr Michael Colquhoun
adjunct professor
Canisius College Buffalo
Hilbert College Hamburg
(that's Hamburg, Buffalo!)
By the way Ruth, Colquhoun is your actual Scottish Gàidhlig.

The clan name was adopted by Humphrey de Kirkpatrick during the reign of Alaxandair II (1214-49) when the Earl of Lennox granted the estate of Colquhoun to Humphrey.

'Colquhoun' is the Francified version of the Gàidhlig expression 'cuil cumhann', meaning a 'strip of forest' - by Loch Lomond.

Colquhoun is pronounced simply 'ka-HOON'.

Michael is American and based in Buffalo NY where he is the president of the 'Composers Alliance'. He studied for his PhD in composition at New York State (which is in Buffalo) under the supervision of - Morton Feldman.

Dr Morton Feldman
Edgard Varèse professor
University of Buffalo
(protégé of - John Cage!)
 Speaking of whom, the final piece of the evening was the incredibly restful 'Duration I' by Morton Feldman. Whereas Michael Colquhoun had allowed Ruth to extend the pauses between phrases as long as she felt appropriate in 'Framing the Silence', Morton Feldman's earlier work allowed the same latitude in every aspect of his composition.

Rebecca Willson
'Duration I'
Morton Feldman
Hannah, Rebecca, Peter and Ruth played from a score without tempo, time signature or bar lines. each could play at their own pace. Although restricted to the scored notes, the players, knowing each other's part, can adjust their speed to make different harmonies. The delicious tension, as all four experimented with the harmonic possibilities of the music, lasted fifteen minutes and ended with perfect resolution and stillness. A delightful end to the evening's performances.

a growing audience
Rebecca Springall
with baby Irwen
The capacity audience at the Bikeshed were transfixed by everything they heard, and many stayed after the concert to talk to the performers - and to the special guest, Gabriel Prokofiev. Incredibly, Exeter Bikeshed is the only venue for Nonclassical outside their base at 'The Macbeth' in Hackney (where John Cage's 100th birthday was celebrated in music on 6th September!) Under Rebecca Willson's guidance, however, Nonclassical at the Bikeshed has gone from strength to strength.  The range of music and the size of the audience has increased at each performance.

In its second year, Nonclassical looks set to increase in popularity, and showcase more new music. Who knows? Maybe we'll see more 'Nonclassical' events springing up in other places. Let's hope so.

together at last
Gabriel Prokofiev and Michael Brailey
finish the evening with a DJ set

Special thanks to our Nonclassical hosts
Michael Brailey and Rebecca Willson
Nonclassical's next event is in London - The Macbeth, 70 Hoxton Street, London

clarinet: Rozenn le Trionnaire
The Macbeth, Hackney (London N1 6LP)
Thursday 11 October
DJ: Gabriel Prokofiev & Richard Lannoy
Rozenn le Trionnaire: Clarinettist
London Soundpainting Orchestra
Tickets: £5 (!!!!!)
Nonclassical website

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