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Psappha Online Concert Group Study Event

In December, students studying on the Foundations and Music Degree programmes at OCA came together to experience a live Youtube broadcast of contemporary music performed by the Manchester music group, Psappha.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions the concert was performed without an audience present but was the third concert of their season to be broadcast online. The ensemble Psappha changes in size, depending on programming requirements and this event focused on music for violin and piano, and for piano and percussion.

The first composition was Three Pieces for Violin and Piano (2013) by Kate Whitley. Inspired by the sculpture Wrestlers by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska the music is made of two musical lines vying against each other in different ways, reflecting the relationship between the figures in the sculpture, poised and delicate but with inner tension. 

One gets a sense of the duality of the relationship, a togetherness but with a barely restrained volatility, at the opening the piece (follow the link at the bottom of this post and listen from 6’42’’) where the violin begins plucked, challenged by the piano playing an extended performance technique whereby the left hand dampens the string inside the instrument as the right hand plays on the keyboard. This produces a similar kind of sound to the plucked violin. The overall effect created is that while the instruments are agreeing in some sense by playing similar sounds, they also appear to be trying to burst free of one another. 

The next composition was Harrison Birtwistle’s The Axe Manual (2000), written for the American pianist Emmanuel Ax and Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie. In discussing this piece, the composer talks about creating an imaginary, meta-instrument which is both piano and percussion, the piece in some way being a manual (noting the play on words between the piece’s title and its dedicatee here) or a compendium of rhythmic techniques. While we still get the kinds of tensions between the two instruments we heard in the Whitley duo, there are also times when the two parts follow their own paths much more independently or when the parts appear to blend together, speaking with one voice as it were. Birtwistle makes use of a wide range of percussion sounds in the piece, including mallet percussion such as the marimba and vibraphone, drums, for instance congas, bongos and tom toms, and metallic instruments, for example, cowbell and high hat. The music includes some of the least aggressive or violent sounding music in Birtwistle’s substantial oeuvre, in particular the middle section focusing on the sustained metallic sounds of the vibraphone with piano (listen from 32’40’’). Incidentally, this is preceded by one of my favourite moments in the piece – an off-kilter dance with the piano and drums switching between playing in rhythmic unison and broken, accented off-beats, interrupted by rapid, downward-sweeping gestures (around 25’09’’). The Axe Manual was the largest piece in the concert, running to over 20 minutes and one of the challenges it presented was how to follow the musical development across that time span, when the kinds of harmonic and melodic structures we more frequently hear in the music around us are not present. Indeed, the music can appear very unpredictable and to some ears, ‘random’ sounding. Two possible ways of taking things in at first is to listen in particular to the rhythmic variety and the range of different sensations of time passing that are contained in the music; and, second, to absorb the experience of ensemble in the piece – the myriad interactions, co-operations and oppositions between the two parts that go towards making Birtwistle’s meta-instrument. 

The final piece on the programme, for violin and piano, was Gordon McPherson’s Maps and Diagrams of our Pain (1990). Influenced by the composer’s interest in psychiatry and obsessive compulsion disorder, the music is at times meditative, at others frantic, at others still, trapped in repetition. The piece begins unusually with an extended solo piano part, playing mildly obsessive, though fragile repeated patterns. After a while the violin joins, playing a high-pitched sustained harmonic (at 54’19’’) which becomes ever woozier and unsettled. The post-modern credentials of the piece are heard in the inclusive nature of the musical language. While the earlier two pieces in the programme each had their own kinds of calmer music, here the composer goes all out for a clear use of diatonic harmony (based on a major scale) in the extended opening of the piece, juxtaposed later with an unremittingly dissonant, expressionist style (from around 58’42’’) which congeals into a sputtering, rhythmic ostinato shortly after. While the earlier pieces certainly had their contrasts, there is something multilingual about McPherson’s music, in the way he adopts different musical styles to emphasise the varying emotions and moods conveyed in the piece. The mutability of style connects with the fluid mental states lying behind the music.

While the concert contained much by the way of challenging music, talking about our expectations and possible ways of listening to the music (having firstly researched the composers) in our pre-concert discussion provided a valuable way in to listening to these contrasting pieces. The post-concert reflection was a time to share how we experienced the event and to draw on each other’s impressions, research and knowledge to deepen that experience and prepares us for future listening adventures.

The concert is available to watch on Psappha’s Youtube channel, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AugRJu0IudA


Image credit: Christopher Burns on Unsplash.

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Posted by author: Gavin Wayte
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