New ways of breathing

“Curlew River” is perhaps not the first title one would imagine Japanese actors rushing to pronounce, but Tokyo University of the Arts, Japan’s leading specialist music and arts college, was more than up for having a go during their recent UK performances of the Noh play Sumidagawa and the operatic piece Benjamin Britten closely based on it.

I had the good fortune to get to see this rare performance combo one sunny afternoon at St. Bartholomew’s Church, Orford (below), in deepest Suffolk where “Curlew River “ (Op. 71), also known as the “Church Parables” was premiered in 1964.

Britten saw Sumidagawa (trans. “Sumida River”) by Juro Motomasa (1395 – 1431)  during a visit to Japan and the Far East in 1956. With the aid of librettist William Plomer, he turned the classic Noh text into a Christian parable set in early medieval times by the fictional Curlew River, inspired by the marshlands of East Anglia where the “capital birds” of the original Buddhist story become curlews.

Noh drama is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theatre. It combines music, dance and acting to communicate Buddhist themes and emerged in the 14th century in the form still used today. The classic Noh play portrays one all-encompassing emotion that dominates the main character. This emotion builds in intensity through music, gesture, dance and recitation until the final climax in which a ghost or historical figure shows up, and is put to rest by releasing the dominant emotion.

Celebrated Noh specialist Tomotaka Sekine as the Madwoman. The green-draped thing in front of him/her represents the boy’s gravestone.

Officially recognised in Japan as Preserver of an Important Intangible Cultural Property (oh WHY don’t we have such accolades over here?!), Tomotaka Sekine, Professor of Noh at the Tokyo University of the Arts took the shite – pronounced “sh’tey” – protagonist role. Alas, there is no way round the name of this crucial Noh leading character,  as the beginning of Tomotaka’s illustrious biog illustrates:

“Born in 1951, Tomotaka Sekine began his stage career at the age of 4 playing the child parts in Kurama Tengu and Hibariyama, and gave his first Shite performance in  Tsunemasa in 1963.”

It’s dangerously easy to invent Noh biogs/reviews based around this.

Example of Japanese Noh theatre mask traditionally worn by the shite performer. The eye slits are very narrow, making it hard for the actor to see.

Sumidagawa is a classic example of the form, and the plot, shared by Curlew River, goes something like this:

A deranged mother (shite protagonist, played by cross-dressing masked male actor) travels from the capital to eastern Japan to find her kidnapped son. She comes across a Ferryman who has just been chatting informally about abstract concepts to the Traveller who’s about to get on board.

When she asks the Ferryman if she can also cross the river, he expresses concern in an enormously protracted soliloquay about her being a tad too care-in-the-community for his boat, but is impressed by her posh accent and manners. To help him and the Traveller decide if she’s up to on-deck H&S, he requests that she dance for them, after which highly stylized performance (infinitely subtle and slow) they decide she’s nuts but harmless and allow her on.

During the crossing, the Ferryman accidentally puts his foot in it by describing how a young boy, corresponding in description to the missing lad, turned up dead only last year on these very shores. Trembling with intense Noh emotion, the Madwoman asks his name, only to noh (sorry) the worst.

They arrive at the grave, and her grief, expressed by holding one hand to her face, is eventually transmuted to spiritual ecstasy through Buddhist incantation. The voice of the boy is heard soaring above the prayers, although there’s a fair amount of controversy in Noh circles about whether or not he should appear in person. This production stuck to the more transcendent disembodied version. 

It’s a pretty full-on experience. The stage – in the centre of the church – was kept completely (traditionally) bare as a foil to the intensity of abstract emotion. Chorus and musicians were dressed and moved like monks and the main characters were in simple but impeccably crafted full kimono-obi get-up.

Traditional Noh stage format, followed in this production. Center: shite; front right: waki; right: eight-member jiutai (chorus); rear center: four hayashi-kata (musicians); rear left: two kōken (stage hands).

The Madwoman made a spectacular entrance, gliding across the stage as if on wheels (in a classic Noh shuffle underneath his/her skirts), and wearing a mask. An otherworldly sight, and tremendously powerful.

And the music…

My god HOW do I describe these off-planet sounds? The closest thing I can think of is Xenakis, believe it or not. And one has to remember that this music is from the 14th century. The band consists of assorted drums, Japanese flute, male chorus and a biwa (a kind of hard-twanged string instrument). Everyone sings with accented upward-rising glissandi plus little accented prepatory gracenotes. Not entirely unlike the Clangers (below), but far less cuddly. Their voices were powerful with full opera projection and a fair amount of vibrato, which surprised me.

How they coordinated themselves and the logic behind the musical gestures are secrets that I’d probably have to go to Tokyo University to fathom. But it seemed to me that the central percussionist was leading and that dramatic cues were given by specific musical sounds. But I might be wrong.

The audience, who I suspect had probably mostly come for the Britten, started shuffling a bit when it became clear that the show was going to be a) entirely in un-subtitled Japanese b) more than an hour long.

Luckily, I had a Penguin edition of the play in English to help me tie up speeches and gestures with the emotional narrative. By the time the disembodied voice of the dead boy appeared from somewhere inside the grave-mound, I had shivers going up and down my spine. The final chorus was a truly religious experience, transforming the very air in the church to something Other in a kind of purification ritual.

Noh is a remote art, yet extremely sophisticated and refined. Yet I’m pretty sure it won’t catch on in the West End.

And it’s a far cry from its more riotous younger sibling Kabuki theatre (born c.1600), which is dramatic in a completely different and more extrovert way. There’s tons of amazing Kabuki stuff on YouTube. Here’s the famous Kabuki star Tamasaburo (male) performing his signature Heron Maiden dance, Sagi Musume in a kind of animated, breathtakingly beautiful Japanese silk-screen painting.

The famous big-hair Lion Dance from a Kabuki performance.

Contrasting with the austere purity of the Noh no-set approach, stage director David Edwards had decided for reasons I couldn’t fathom to fill the tiny stage with rubbish. Literally, rubbish bags of trash, empty cooking oil drums and bits of paper. The Japanese main characters and British male chorus had bits of papery stuff pinned to their jumble sale cast-offs, and the Japanese musicians, led by musical director Dominic Wheeler, made their entrance decked in white with long blue veils inexplicably draped over their heads.

During the show, members of the bedraggled chorus “related” to the musicians by giving them meaningful stares. It was all a bit confusing, and the already cluttered stage was rendered almost painfully jammed once everyone had squeezed on. Really it would have been SOOO much better left as was in my view. After all, Britten called the piece a “Christian Parable”, rather than opera.

Dubious staging aside, what was impressive was the Japanese singers’ and instrumentalists’ absolute mastery over their performance, in particular the fabulous Jun Suzuki as androgynous Mad bag Lady.

Benjamin Britten on location

All were BANG in tune, and with the exception of a slight stumble in the Abbott’s dangerous opening line “Good souls, I would have you know the Brothers have come today to show you a mystery”, their English pronunciation was uncannily good.

Dominic told me that they had all been painstakingly coached back in Tokyo for several weeks, as had the instrumentalists who gave an impeccable performance, almost memorized in some cases, although perhaps not always convincing in the floating tempo stuff.

As the piece is un-conducted, Britten was freed from conventional bar-lined notation and the piece is led by designated instruments with their own time signatures. The music synchronises at the “Curlew symbol”, allowing parts to repeat previous notes or phrases ad lib, or skip ahead as required so that everyone eventually reaches the same point.

It was fascinating to see the opera straight after its Japanese predecessor and it’s an afternoon I won’t forget in a hurry.

At risk of overdoing the Nippon theme, I’m reminded of the story about Toru Takemitsu being invited to tea by one of the Aldeburgh ladies during his visit to the Festival a couple of decades ago. On being offered cucumber sandwiches, cake and Earl Grey he remarked to his hostess,

“Ah! Now I understand Agata Clistie!”

A couple of miles up the road from Aldeburgh beach is the famous Snape Maltings concert hall and performance spaces where I found myself, not for the first time, being in–house guinea pig instrumentalist  for Aldeburgh Music’s latest New Music, New Media course for composers, hosted by Tansy Davies and Rolf Wallin, with vocal ensemble Juice popping in to assist for a couple of days.

Kicking off proceedings was the amazingly-named technological genius Alexander Refsum Gensenius (BA, MA, MSc, PhD) – or “Sengenius”, as I promptly called him, a post-doctoral music technology researcher working at the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Academy of Music. He studied informatics, mathematics, physics, musicology, piano performance and music technology and is currently working in fields of academia I had no idea even existed until meeting him.

On the basis of his research into musical gestures, he was dubbed “Dr Air Guitar” by the press and TV, has developed new technology for analysis of movement, and was a project manager for European Space Camp and the Andøya Rocket Range amongst many other things.


In the most flawless power-point presentation I’ve ever seen, Alexander (left) introduced his small but fascinated audience to mind-bending concepts and gadgets pretty much new to everyone. Here‘s his summary of the presentation.

He somehow worked the opening puppet scene from Being John Malkovich into his talk, a film that most definitely stands up to a rewatch. Moments I’d forgotten are the giant Emily Dickinson puppet scene, a frizzy-hippy-haired Cameron Diaz having a love affair within the body of John Malkovitch with bi-sexual Catherine Keener, and Sean Penn giving a hilariously straight documentary interview about puppetry being the future of Hollywood.

Craig (John Cusack) introduces his wife (Cameron Diaz) to the portal into John Malkovich’s head, hidden behind a filing cabinet on the 7 and a halfth floor. “Being John Malkovitch” (1999), written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze.

The course objective was for the composers to have a go at writing new pieces incorporating some of the new toys, at the same time finding ways of physically moving and performing in the space, all to be presented in an enticingly named open workshop, “The Body as Sound” at the end of our 10 days.

Ben Oliver opted for a designated camera-sensor zone in which movement triggered sound files (forgive my crude explanation of techie stuff ), “playing” his instrument in the show along with Tansy Davies who gave a spectacular shimmied version of the piece. Laurence Tomkins managed to wire up wine bottles and knives (and me) in various ways to his laptop, producing some very interesting sounds indeed within the context of a composed piece.

The boys and their toys. That’s Rolf Wallin at the back overseeing proceedings.

Columbian Camilo Mendez Sanjuan attached an accelerometer to my arm for his piece, inspired by an art installation ackowledging recent government-sanctioned massacres in his home country. Tom Coult gave a graceful performance of his piece using my cello case as physical prompt for the ravishing shifting pure vocal harmonies recorded by  Juice, messed up in interesting ways a with Wii-controller. Stephen Mark Barchan made a beautiful vocal tape piece complemented by Tansy and Rolf’s “Pegasus” Prom-commissioned electronic score.

The wild card number, given an unforgettable performance by the composer, was Rolf’s theatre piece “Scratch” for large red balloon. I spent several happy hours in balloon technique master-class with Rolf, who teaches the piece in the time-honoured oral tradition. It’s now a firm staple of the Martlew rep.

img_1397-nggid03347-ngg0dyn-320x240x100-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Composers survey the components of Lawrence’s bottle and knife installation. Note preponderance of check shirts.

Whether we like it or not, musical technology is with us and getting more and more sophisticated by the day. In 20 years time the New Music New Media course will probably be held in an international cyber space hologram coordinated by participants with head-chip implants.

One can only hope that musical ears keep pace with all the gadgets. Let’s face it, it’s still hard to rival Stockhausen’s early analogue tape pieces…

In November 2008 I met Stockhausen’s partners, flautist Kathinka Pasveer and clarinettist Suzanne Stevens when they were in the UK to oversee “Klang”, an 8 day festival celebrating Stockhausen’s work curated by Oliver Knussen.

Guessing it would more than fine to do so, I asked them both what the Maestro was up to, a year after his death. “Oh, he’s working with galaxies now”, was Suzanne’s immediate response. “The last piece he wanted to write needed 180 channels. When the engineer he approached on the matter told him to get lost, he knew it was time to move onto higher things.”

“So did his music really come from Sirius?” I asked, encouraged.

“Of course”, they replied.

They say he is now overseeing all his work on this planet and constantly helping them coordinate performances.

This may sound extremely floaty, but I can assure you that they are NOT crazy people, but highly intelligent, articulate and sensitive souls, and world-class musicians to boot, who have simply dedicated their lives to Stockhausen.

Stockhausen in his garden in 2005.

Neither of them had expected him to go quite so suddenly. Having been in perfect health immediately before, he woke up one morning and said,

“Now I have found a whole new way of breathing!”

and checked out, presumably to a dimension where they are more amenable to multi-channel compositions.

On the subject of composers’ final moments, Scriabin got snuffed by septicemia, caused by a boil on the lip. His last words were:

“It is the end.”


Then, (suddenly),    “But this is a catastrophe!”      (clonk).

Alban Berg also died from septicemia, in his case brought on by a botched home operation (by his wife) on a bee sting.

Barry Humphries revolting character Lance Boyle suddenly comes to mind. Here’s his more glamorous alter-ego, Dame Edna.

Mussourgsky’s last hours were spent in the Imperial Military Hospital in St Petersberg after he’d suffered a rapid series of seizures, doubtless triggered by his rampant alcoholism. The famous red-nosed portrait of him looking totally wrecked dates from this time, perhaps rather unfairly for posterity, as apparently he was actually rather a fastidious man in former years and something of a dandy.

Modest Mussorgsky (1881) just before he died, painted by Ilya Repin (below). He was 42.

That said, he did spend a vast amount of his life getting trashed in a dodgy Saint Petersburg tavern, the Maly Yaroslavets, accompanied by other like-minded wasters.

His final theatrical utterance, having just downed a bottle of cognac bribed from some hospital caretaker, was:

“It is the end, woe is me.”

Webern’s understandable last verbal communication in this world was,

“Ach, I am shot! It is over”

On the 15th december (my birthday!) 1945 (not) during the Allied occupation of Austria, Anton Webern unwisely ignored the curfew and nipped outside for a crafty cigar. He was shot by American soldier Raymond Norwood Bell who had just been inside the house arresting Webern’s son-in-law for black-marketeering. Rushing out to fetch an interpreter, Bell was either startled by the composer’s lit match or simply collided with him.

A keen student of musicology in private life, the unfortunate Bell was overcome by remorse and died of alcoholism in 1955.

Leonard Bernstein had a more sceptical concluding line. Having just been injected with something he asked, “What is this?”

OK. Nuff composer last words for now. But it’s a good new game, if a tad morbid.

And nothing like as compulsive as a week long brain teaser initiated by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s director, Stephen Newbould, who was interested (for reasons I’ve now forgotten) in finding composers in relation to cake.

Franco Panettoni anyone?

Here are just some of the #cakecomposers that recently clogged the Twittersphere, mostly c/o BCMG, Chris Gillett (tenor/writer), me and star COE horn player Beth Randell. I warn you, once started it’s hard to avoid getting on an (arctic) roll:

Favourites included Ligateux, Eton Messiaen’s “Meringalila”, Bachlava’s jam tartas with crumpet obligateaux and the “Art of Fudge”, Scelsi Buns (c/o Sound & Music’s Susanna Eastburn), Motart’s “Scone Giovanni”, Schoenbattenberg, anything played by the Filomonia orchestra, Chouxbert and Chouxman Quincetets, Stravinsky’s “The Rice Pudding of Spring” and “The Cake’s Progress” starring Tom Bakewell,

A classic Victoria sponge.

composer John Cake, who determined musical events by consulting the I-Cing, not to mention Fluxus colleague, Earle Brownie, and all important Britcakes:-

Harriscone Birtwistle, Muffinsi, Swiss Rolly Knussen, Britten’s Simnel Symphony and “Cake of Lucretia”, Michael Tipetit Fours and William Walnutcake’s celebrated “Belshazzer’s Yeast”.

It’s when things started to drift towards Tomata Argerich, Rudlph Guerkin and Houmous Ades that it became clear we all needed rehabilitarting.

Now where was I?

Oh yes, music technology.

Former DJ Mira Calix (Cakemix), now “composer, performer and producer” in official biogs, is no stranger to electronics and was recently commissioned by the BFI to create a score for the newly digitally re-mastered version of Hitchcock’s 1925 silent movie “Champagne”, premiered this week in NFT 1.

Mira Calix

The film is un-Hitchockian in the sense that it’s a light romantic comedy rather than the suspense thriller on which he built his reputation, but nevertheless shows many hallmarks of the Master of Suspense, with some of the strange cross-fades and visual puns one associates with his later films.

Champagne was a vehicle for hugely popular British actress Betty Balfour who lit up the screen with her charm and warmly expressive, childlike face. Many scenes hinge entirely around extended shots of her face and huge round eyes, and she holds our attention throughout. You can’t help loving her character, airhead as it mostly is.

The plot, in brief, concerns young heiress Betty’s entanglements with various romantic suitors on and off board an ocean liner, Parisian cocktail parties, cash, clothes and the clashes with her domineering but devoted Daddy about all the above.

A feminist reading would explore Betty’s, and every other woman in the film’s exploitation at the hands of the men with whom they come into contact, and their ways of attempting to make the best of a bad situation and turn it to their advantage.

Having made a skeleton drumbeat backdrop to the movie, Mira Calix used improvising musicians to fill in a full score. Clarinettist Peter Sparks, trumpeter Paul Archibald and me showed up at the former NFT a couple of weeks ago to have a go at making musical sense of this nearly two hour film, assisted by Mira’s carefully prepped mood boards and scene themes, used as starting points for improv.

It’s a tough call to improvise with an ensemble that hasn’t played together before whilst listening to faint in-ear drum tracks, whilst watching the screen and Mira’s arm-waved directions at the same time, but somehow we came up with something in the ridiculously short time available.

Just to put things in perspective, I remember playing in the vast session orchestra assembled for the Lord of The Rings soundtrack. In the two 3-session days I attended, we recorded  a total of  less than a minute’s music – for the Mumakil scene I seem to remember. The budget for the music alone for that vast blockbuster was some 5 million dollars. In a film more or less the same length, our little band recorded the music for an entire Hitchcock score in less than 2 short days.

Dressed in matching 1920s outfits, Mira Calix and vocal trio Juice (yes, the same from Aldeburgh antics above) who had also done some pre-recorded improv, were on stage for the screening, improvising live over the pre-records with their beautifully in-tune, pure voices, and playing occasional light percussion.

There was a buzz of expectancy in NFT1, more like that of the opening night of a play than a movie. The audience was chirpily responsive throughout the show, chuckling at all the right bits and obviously out to have a good time.

Juice Vocal Ensemble

A quick inspection of Twitter may reveal (I haven’t dared look) what they made of the more-or-less poly-tonal/rhythmic sound track with interjecting full-on dance drum beats, mostly unsynched to the instrumental improv.

My fave bit was Mira/Juice’s take on Die Antwoord’s fabulous rap-rave number Rich Bitch.

You can check out the video here in which lead singer Yo-Landi Vi$$er spends a fair amount of time sitting on a golden loo with golden hot pants around her knees.

Whatever the result, it was amazing to learn quite how much music and sound affects ones perception of film. Mira had us play quite a dark interpretation of the bubbly heroine’s shenanigans, completely at odds with the 1920s jazz band romp I would otherwise imagine to fit with such an essentially upbeat movie. The contrast and its effect on the audience was fascinating to observe.

Bernard Herrmann would probably have had things to say.

I’ve just heard the prelude to Act III of Dukas Ariane et Barbe Bleu on Spotify and it’s SOOOO moving and wonderful, with truly beautiful harmonies. And if you listen carefully to this and also Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, you can hear bits of Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock movies, especially Vertigo. He obviously knew his French rep.

Bernard Hermann (right) must have known a fair amount of all kinds of rep as conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra which he ran until it disbanded. He did a lot of pioneering stuff, introducing US audiences to more new works than any other conductor at the time, including early performances of Ives (then virtually unknown), Miaskovsky, Rubbra and the 2nd ever performance of Schoenberg’s 2nd Chamber Symphony.


Film scores I suspect he wouldn’t have been that into are those by Michel Legrand, including one of my favourite movies ever, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), starring Catherine Deneuve at her most radiantly beautiful, and it’s outrageously camp sequel Les Dememoiselles de Rochefort (1967), also starring Deneuvre and her equally gorgeous sister, Françoise Dorleac.

The sisters flounce glamorously around the pastel-coordinated set singing (dubbed) in rapid solfege, seducing all men within sight including Gene Kelly and a character called M. Dame, whose love life is blighted by his unfortunate name. I think you NEED to see this short scene.

Alas, the beautiful (and perhaps more talented?) Françoise died at 25 in a terrible Renault crash whilst rushing to the airport. There was no record of her last words, or of her physical remains, poor love. All that was left was her cheque-book.

Speaking of M. Dame, I leave you with a final image initiated by composer David Del Tredici (for much about whom see last post) of when Camille Saint-Saens (below) was caught in full drag dancing in a bar with Tchaikowsky.

I assumed this to be complete fabrication until recently coming across irrefutable evidence in a biog on the French master about his penchant for cross-dressing.

Well I never. I guess that explains some of the flamboyant figuration.

Au revoir, until the next episode Z-Blog.





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