Bach Evolution at the Royal Albert Hall

Guest review by Doug Thomas

On 1 May 2019, the Royal Albert Hall dedicated a full evening to the music of J.S. Bach. The event, entitled Bach Evolution, was part of Deutsche Grammophon (DG)’s 120th birthday, and presented three of the most exciting figures in contemporary classical and electronic music: Vikingur Ólafsson, Peter Gregson and Clark.

Ólafsson, whom most of us have discovered through his first hugely successful release with DG, Philip Glass: Piano Works, has recently received the BBC Recording of the Year award as well as the ​Instrumental award for his latest album with DG, Johann Sebastian Bach. I was particularly excited to hear and see him. Ólafsson’s interpretation of Bach is incredible; the clarity of the articulation, the independence of the voices, the bouncing of each note – recalling Gould – all performed with modesty and elegance. The Icelandic pianist’s set was as diverse as his album; presented as an open canvas during his introductory speech, it included a pulsating Prelude in C minor, an angelic arrangement of the Prelude in E Minor by Siloti and a divine Widerstehe doch der Sünde, transcribed by Ólafsson.

Last year, Gregson took the challenge of recomposing Bach’s Six Cello Suites. The result, released by DG through their Recomposed Series, is a captivating set of double interpretations, where the composer turns around each suite to show different aspects of it. With his cello sextet (and an additional synth) Gregson performed a selection of movements of the suites that reflected both the purity of the original compositions and the modernism of the Scottish composer. It was very interesting to see how Gregson’s approach is very close to Bach’s; the cellist isolated motifs out of each suite and played around them, extracting all the musical material contained in it.

The real surprise of the evening was the electronic musician Clark’s participation. The outsider of the trio presented a set that would have started a riot a few centuries ago. Through a Zappa-esque premiere performance, the English musician (joined by composer and producer Olly Coates) deconstructed Bach’s music, including parts of the French Suites. The result was a sonic musical potpourri that tore, stretched, compressed, mistreated and distorted the music of the Baroque composer, through real time sequencing and looping. Part of the audience felt uncomfortable, dazzle,  and decided to leave the venue, while the remainder enjoyed Clark’s avant-gardism and novelty performance.

The hall might have been half empty at the end of the evening – due to Clark’s provocative performance – but it will certainly be full next time Ólafsson, Gregson or Clark returns. Whether it is through a flawless performance, a modern reinterpretation or a violent destruction, Bach continues to fascinate musicians and listeners.

When one is tired of Bach, he is tired of life.

Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.

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(header image: RAH)

A sonic sculptural wrapping: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet at Tate Modern

Guest review by Doug Thomas

Gavin Bryars

In 1971, the British composer Gavin Bryars looped the recording of an unknown homeless man singing what was thought to be the religious hymn “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” over a dense minimalistic orchestral arrangement. The result is a mesmerising musical experience; first limited to twenty-five minutes on LP, then sixty minutes on cassette and finally seventy-four minutes with the CD version. Unfortunately, it appears that the old man never heard Bryars’ composition – and the composer himself later came to conclusion that the hymn had actually been improvised by the unknown man. Last Friday, 12th April 2019, a handful of lucky people gathered in the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern to experience for the very first time for a full twelve-hour live performance of the piece.

The event, scheduled at eight in the evening and running until the early morning, was organised so that the audience could stay for the entire duration of the concert, but with constant open doors to allow people to come and go throughout the night. Contrary to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby “Sleep”, no beds had been arranged; actually no seating had been arranged at all. The audience spontaneously sat, and later lay down, in a semi-circle in front of the orchestras, while some people stood up and moved around, as one would do in a museum room. The orchestras were the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Southbank Sinfonia and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble (including my arranging teacher at university, Audrey Riley). On the side of the orchestras, Street Wise Opera, a choir of people with experience of homelessness, and in the middle of all that, on contrabass and later on the conductor’s seat, Gavin Bryars himself.

The piece started quite spontaneously with no announcement or introduction. And then something happened. To the words of the old man’s voice and the sweetness of the instruments, the entire audience remained silent and immovably mesmerised. Stanza after stanza, the instruments introduced themselves, then the choir started singing. There was the beauty of the music, the honesty of the musicians and the singers, the admiration and attentiveness of the audience. When I checked the time, I realised that what felt like minutes had actually been hours. Throughout the night, members of the orchestra took turns in performing while part of the audience remained, as night owls, until the early morning.

Everything about this experience was right. The venue, which broke with the austere standards of classical concerts venues, and allowed everyone to come, and go. The spontaneous audience: musicians, curious wanderers or simple art and music lovers. The performers: amateurs and professionals gathered around a communal sense of honesty and authenticity. And of course, the music. What had always seemed to me like a beautiful two-dimensional musical painting became a sonic sculptural wrapping, and a unique musical experience. How lucky I feel to have been a little piece of history of minimalistic music.

Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.

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