Every now and again, after sitting through a dull concert, you’re bound to have spent a gloomy moment wondering whether our venerable 250-year-old instrumental institutions – the symphony orchestra, the string quartet – still have any light to throw on the world of 2017. At such times it can seem that the traditional picture of the string quartet as four genteel sophisticates conversing doesn’t measure up to our swipe-left, headphone-wearing, information-drenched world; that the expressive possibilities of horsehair and catgut are now exhausted in the world of the modular synthesiser and Funktion-One speakers. Well, if you have had such thoughts, you’re wrong. For let me tell you about a recent trip to Berlin, where, at an Arditti Quartet concert at the MaerzMusik festival, I witnessed a vision of the string quartet in 2017 – not so much in rude health as emerging spectacular from an iridescent disc, wielding a flaming sword.
The piece begins like this. Across a massive screen, in front of which the five onstage silhouettes of a vocalist and players remain still, a legend is emblazoned: ‘EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT by Jennifer Walshe.’ A second later, now animated, the quartet breaks into a banal C major ditty whilst into a microphone the female vocalist (Walshe herself) hysterically announces: ‘The drone is coming in to take a picture and the investment bankers are SMILING!’ Then an abrupt silence. Five seconds later the quartet re-enters, now playing frenzied complex atonality, over which the vocalist chants: ‘viroids, silicates, junk, DNA, mitochondria!’ Abrupt silence again. When the piece begins properly it’s a multimedia potpourri, a glitter-laced crater, a Jacuzzi of lemonade in your ear. The quartet – aided by an electronic backing track – progresses through glistening harmonics, folk band-esque pizzicato and classical lyricism. The screen moves from computer animations of the solar system to expansive shots of the rocky Burren in the West of Ireland to internet memes (the cartoon cat Garfield and his girlfriend Arlene, for example, under the text ‘LOL THE HARD PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS’). Walshe intones, sings, whispers. At one point, her face appears onscreen in a mirror with huge black brushstrokes being applied to it: ‘ANTI SURVEILLANCE MAKE-UP’, the text explains. At another point cellist Lucas Fels puts down his instrument, gets up and (rather stiffly) dances. Later, when, acting as a channel for internet-babble, Walshe chants: ‘Awwh, people are listening to the Pope’s MySpace playlist, am I right ladies, am I right ladies, am I right?’ The repetition of her concluding phrase puts us in mind of T.S. Eliot’s closing time call in The Waste Land. The whole piece lasts 40 minutes. It’s as lucid as Haydn, as ludic as a Gladiators episode and had the sold-out German audience bubbling with laughter and enthusiastic with applause.
The piece is a multimedia potpourri, a glitter-laced crater, a Jacuzzi of lemonade in your ear.
Not only does this string quartet have a pulse, it has dilated eyes. ‘Everything is Important is, as a philosopher would put it, a way of thinking 2016’, Walshe explains in an interview given for HCMF last year and reproduced in the programme booklet: ‘What it’s like to be alive right now, as slippery a concept as that might be.’ The quartet is a companion piece to her 2014 piece THE TOTAL MOUNTAIN, which similarly involves multimedia – electronic backing track, video and the composer vocalising – and similarly feels like a guided tour through an infernal landscape. That landscape – all solar flare gifs, garish PowerPoint presentations and anti-nuclear iodine pills – is the day-to-day landscape of 2017. It’s a contemporary landscape wherein the virtual has become real (online social media personas having more heft than flesh and blood presences) and the real become virtual (our planet having shifted into the dystopic science fiction scenario of an imminent global catastrophe occasioned by climate change). As an artwork, EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT in some ways reminds me of the novel Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid, apocalyptic, paranormal epic set during World War II in a present careering asymptotically towards its Stunde Null or ‘zero hour’. In Gravity’s Rainbow that zero hour is the as-yet undecided conclusion of the war; in EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT it is the as-yet undecided conclusion of civilisation as we know it. Alongside sound, text is key for the effect. Walshe explains that, as well as taking text from Twitter, she drew on The Bureau of Linguistical Reality, ‘which is an artist-led project to try to develop new words to describe what it’s like to be alive right now. They developed these interesting words like apex guilt, metapredator, Netflixalypse – that’s the feeling that the apocalypse is impending, but it’s happening slowly so people are bored and watching Netflix as they wait for things to play out.’
In making a string quartet that’s absolutely relevant to 2017, Walshe paradoxically makes the form in some other composers’ hands seem absolutely irrelevant. That’s obviously a mixed blessing, but it’s how progress works. At the MaerzMusik concert, Walshe was programmed alongside two Austro-Germanic men, Peter Ablinger and Georg Friedrich Haas. Later in the evening there was also a screening of Walshe’s film AN GLÉACHT, replete with quasi-pagan imagery shot in rural Ireland. While it was hard not to feel that Walshe’s Irishness held some exoticism for the German audience, this took nothing away from the fact that, placed alongside Walshe’s nifty quartet, the Haas quartet seemed as patently ridiculous as walking down Oxford Street in a bowler hat and plus fours (the Ablinger ‘quartet’ was a completely silent video, but that’s another story). The conceit of Haas’s Tenth String Quartet, as with some of his other pieces, is that it is performed in darkness. We could be forgiven for seeing this in symbolic terms. Where Walshe opts to fill the audience’s senses with kaleidoscopic colour and sound, Haas quite literally opts to turn the lights off; where Walshe’s response to the challenge of the contemporary is to jump in and, like a shaman, seek to unravel its sense, Haas’s answer is to close his eyes and hope it all goes away; where Walshe presents an image of the string quartet as a wide-eyed youth in full brio, Haas shows it as a decrepit old man on a bench mumbling to himself.
Walshe’s response to the challenge of the contemporary is to jump in and, like a shaman, seek to unravel its sense.
Lest all this simply come across as gushing, let me return to my point: what I’m talking about is not simply novelty but the new. On a craft level EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT is a straightforward product of disciplined practice (the term Harold Bloom gave to what he considers the glue of the Western classical tradition), here reformulated as what Walshe calls ‘the New Discipline’. The New Discipline, which has materialised in the past few years, is a loose-knit compositional movement drawing on internet, multimedia and conceptual art. New Discipline works are compositions that ‘have a wide range of disparate interests’, Walshe says, ‘but [which] all share the common concern of being rooted in the physical, theatrical and visual, as well as musical; pieces which often invoke the extra-musical, which activate the non-cochlear. In performance, these are works in which the ear, the eye and the brain are expected to be active and engaged.’ A lot of these works, including some of Walshe’s own, can come across as arty and weird and conceptual: all well and good for the faithful, but it can scare off a broader musical public. The advantage of using a familiar ensemble like the string quartet was clear at the Festspiel Salle. In EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT the Arditti Quartet’s habitual lack of extravagance only served all the more effectively to frame the music’s complete extravagance. Just as you might be more comfortable trying out a new drug if it were handed to you by your beloved Aunt Josephine rather than by some ghoulish type in an alleyway, similarly in art we often find the new easiest to absorb when it is presented to us by way of the familiar.
After the concert, as I walked along the anachronistic mesh of the Kurfürstendamm in the rain with my broken umbrella, some lines by Rilke, quoted in Gravity’s Rainbow, drifted around my head:
Will transformation. Oh be inspired for the flame
in which a Thing disappears and bursts into something else
Traditional musical formats, far from being irrelevant, can actually be the most effective way of presenting the new. Perhaps traditional musical mediums are the best way of channelling our age’s spirits – however demonic.