Containing pieces composed in 1778 through to 1966 by Ligeti, Mozart, Prokofiev and Pärt, Oxford University Sinfonietta’s programme for their upcoming concert is one of the most diverse that I have seen this term. When I asked Owen Hubbard, the President of the ensemble, what motivated the choice of repertoire, he told me that “It’s important to break out from the tradition of seeing musical works as fossilised museum objects which don’t have anything to say to each other across different time periods and cultures. Classical music is a living art form which can be relevant for the twenty-first century, and what better way to be this than through performances by young, talented musicians?”
The Sinfonietta is certainly a prime example of this; the ensemble brings together a group of some of the best instrumentalists at the university from a variety of disciplines. They are dedicated to bringing innovative programmes combining a wide spectrum of genres and periods to the stage, particularly pieces that are rarely performed, especially by student ensembles. Such an example is Ligeti’s Nouvelles Aventures, the centre-piece of the programme. Composed in 1964-66 as a partner piece to Aventures, Ligeti referred to Nouvelles Aventures as a ‘mimodrama’ – essentially a mimed musical drama. As such it is often performed semi-staged, as by the Zeitgenössische Oper Berlin when they put on a production in a shopping arcade, attempting to blur the boundaries between the everyday and the artistic. Within the Western music tradition we tend to feel that there are strictly delineated boundaries between what is and isn’t a performance, art, or music, but following in the line of thought articulated by John Cage that “Everything we do is music”, Nouvelles Aventures aims to challenge this. As Owen says, “What other piece of music has instructions to smash plates, rip up paper, or beat a carpet alongside a harpsichord part and writing for other classical orchestral instruments?”
By placing these everyday objects next to musical instruments, Nouvelles Aventures explicitly encapsulates a theme that runs through the whole concert programme; to demonstrate the wide range of sounds and techniques that can be achieved with the same group of musicians. Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 are scored for the same forces, Pärt’s Symphony No. 1 for a similar size group. Ramifications takes the string section of the orchestra and places them on one per part, with half the group tuned a quarter-tone sharper than the other six players. This technique allows for the creation of indistinct harmonies that will be unique to every performance.
Ensuring that every performance is slightly different through the scoring and the way in which the instruments are used is a goal that Ramifications shares with Nouvelles Aventures. This reinforces one of the fundamental ideas underlying Nouvelles Aventures; to renegotiate the relationship between the composer, performer, and audience. Designed to be too difficult to maintain complete fidelity to the score, as with Ramifications this is a piece in which the overall sound-world is far more important than the immediate relationship between individual notes. Many experimental composers aimed to make explicit problems with the assumptions that we make about music, in this case the fact that no two performances of a piece can ever be exactly the same, even a performance of a Mozart Symphony. This was often achieved through aleatoric scores; this is Ligeti’s way of tackling the same idea. As such, there is obviously no way to have an absolutely ‘correct’ performance, challenging Western ideas of the autocracy of the musical score. Not least of these innovations is the way in which Nouvelles Aventures challenges the vocal soloists, demanding sounds of the voice that a classical singer is not trained to make. Baritone soloist Alex Brett told me that as a performer, “The main challenge is maintaining the structural integrity of the piece as it’s impossible to be note perfect.”
The singers explore five areas of emotion, starting with anxiety, throughout the piece; with a text that has no meaning, acting becomes a crucially important element of performance. There is an entire section in which every note has a different mood assigned to it, to be achieved by whatever means the performer sees fit. It is here that Ligeti is confronting our ideas about how you can ‘express’ musically; for me, one of the greatest strengths of both this piece and of experimental music in general is that it throws the spotlight onto audience participation, active or otherwise. As an audience, our emotions, the way we listen, and the subsequent impressions and interpretations that we form of a piece mean that making music is as much our job as it is the composer’s or performer’s. Experimental music tries to to bring this to the forefront of our awareness in the way we think about music; you can take from it as much or as little as you want, but in many ways this is a more personal way of experiencing music than through many of the traditions we have grown accustomed to. The Sinfonietta have decided to alter the standard orchestral layout meaning that the players and audience are physically closer together, visually and spatially emphasising the integrative nature of the musical experience.
This visual element is a crucial one. Throughout the piece, we are reminded that there are more components to a performance than its sound; the physical aspects are highlighted through mime and actions, emphasising the drama of the music. The most obviously dramatic genre of Western music is opera, and indeed there are references to operatic traditions throughout the score; the climactic ‘Grand Hysterical Scene’ for the soprano seeming to mock the bel canto singers of Italian opera. The entirety of the score is imbued with a subtle sense of humour; in an interview with the BBC Ligeti said that “There is a tradition that so-called high-culture music concert is a serious something. I personally deeply like Charlie Chaplin films and Marx Brothers.” Watching the singers rehearse, there are moments where Ligeti’s predilection for the amusing and absurd certainly make themselves clear to both audience and performer; in Alex’s words, “Overall, it’s just great fun to perform.”
Despite all the challenges that experimentalism brings to our conceptions of classical music, it of course grew out of, and is rooted within, this tradition. The strong link that binds together seemingly eclectic and disparate selections from the same musical tradition is particularly apparent when placed alongside each other as they are here. In the final bars of Ramifications the orchestra suddenly stops short, leaving the conductor to beat four bars on his own – the sonic sphere of the piece continues to resonate after the final note has been played, the music carrying on after the sounds have stopped to remind us, once again, that everything we do is music.
Oxford University Sinfonietta will perform on Thursday 29th November, conducted by Ed Whitehead, at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building (St Hilda’s College) at 20.00; tickets £10/£5, available on the door or to reserve contact email@example.com