Friday, April 20, 2007


Tonight saw the opening night of the 'Jauna Muzika' electronic music festival in Vilnius. It takes place every year, for a week or so, and has most recently found itself in the contemporary arts centre - a very suitable location, and for your ticket money you get to see the pictures, too.

Although the topic is new music, tonight's programme was relatively old; George Crumb's Black Angels electric string quartet, a quartet whose author I will remember as soon as the website of the Lithuanian Music Information Centre agrees to open up, and Steve Reich's trains.

Crumb's Black Angels (1970) is apparently based on the Vietnam war. This only included the people on the stage, the Chordos Quartet; who played not only their own instruments, but also bowed some Indonesian gongs, some tuned glasses, had some mini-maraccas, sang and made other noises, scrunched and scratched, and for a while played their violins and violas upside down (very competently). The piece generally was white noise, with rarely a bow placed squarely on a string. But every now and again quotes popped up, of something by Bach (?? B A C H???) in the first movement, a bit of Schubert's Death and the Maiden in the second movement, and the upside down playing reminded the audience of a viol consort. The style was also particularly vibrato-less, to the extreme of making the notes sound not very nice. The instruments were amplified which was just as well - such was the sound level of the 'not connecting the bow with the string' approach.

This was followed by Ezekiel de Vinao's 'La Noche de las Noches' for string quartet and electronics. The electronics were produced by a computer, and included a range of sounds including church bells which electronicly changed the nature of their sound, and later a much amplified roaring cello. The music was much more connected (especially between bow and string!) and more like real music; at some stages the sound level became very loud indeed!

Finally we heard Reichs 'Different trains' which is for a string quartet backed by a string quartet recording, together with the voices of train conductors and such like. It was supposed to have three movements, 'America before the war', 'Europe during the war', and 'after the war', but at least the second and third movements joined together, and there was not much of a gap between the first and second either. Had he added 'Britain after 1970' an almost silent movement might have followed, with a few scrunches for the crashes. Reich writes minimalist music, and there was much repetition in it; however, particularly in the first part the trains were very identifiable, including their whistles. Of course, trains also make repetitive music. And there was a difference between the US trains and the European trains during the war (though they seemed to move too fast for the time). What I liked particularly was the way in which he had translated the spoken announcements into music; the announcer would say something and the cello or viola would repeat it. This piece seemed much more focused that Reich's streams of consciousness, when he and his team were in Vilnius last October. It was also relatively short. I had always thought it was supposed to be performed with trains in the background.

The Chordos Quartet did well; they are a bunch of young(ish) performers, all Lithuanian trained, who do much ink-still-wet type of work, though their website suggests they also play other music. They have two performances in this festival and regularly perform at Gaida, the autumn modern music festival (without electronics, usually). They are therefore well experienced at this sort of thing, and very well organised. They did very well indeed, and seemed to be in control of their recorded music most of the time. Of course, one would have liked to have heard some real notes, but the small moment of Schubert was something one could take home. One tip, though - with this kind of programme you can assume that your audience does not know the music, so please get up when it's over so we can give you some applause! (Bit difficult, considering they were wired up.)

I wondered, though, about the cost of these performances - with living composers and those recently dead the performance fees are high, and then there is the rental of the tape/CD as well....Lithuania is doing well!