There’s not much that can defeat the Song Company. This tight knit group can sing, act and, most important, think their way around pretty much anything you can throw at them. But with Cornelius Cardew they might have met their match.
Cardew was an experimental composer and activist who died in mysterious circumstances in 1981, aged 45. His relationship with music was, like his relationship with life, art, philosophy, everything, passionate, playful and enduringly tricky. If ever there was someone who could think themselves into a corner, it was Cardew.
There’s never going to be a double CD boxed set of Cardew’s greatest hits. For a start, the whole idea of a finite word, a recording setting the sound in shiny silver, is something one feels he’d rage against. Nevertheless, the Song Company’s artistic director, Antony Pitts, has dreamt up a ‘kind-of-opera’ (his description) which brings together fragments and glimpses into the musical machinations of Cardew’s iconoclastic mind. It’s designed, with input from designer and writer Adrian Self, as a chronology of Cardew’s life, with music, some synchronymous (is that a word?) and some tangential.
The performances are, as you’d expect from the Song Company, wild and wonderful. They’re all fine singers but, more than that, they are sound artists. Something like Steve Reich’s ‘voicetruments’. Plus they occupy the stage with a highly tuned awareness of the interplay between themselves and the audience. No shy genius hiding behind a score here. It makes for a very intense experience: the music is beautiful but discombobulating, nothing is predictable, and the threat of audience participation hangs in the air. You’re never quite sure whether you are being entertained, educated or are in fact the subject of a covert scientific experiment.
As a way of portraying this curious artist I found it superbly effective. As a way of trying to answer the question always hanging in the air — what is this new music for? — I found it confronting and, ultimately, quite sad. There wasn’t a hint of irony in the ensemble’s rendition of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, and I even felt the physiological surge of joy as cross-rhythms combined with key change combined with sweet, sweet harmonies. The darkness I felt came from all that went before.
In Anthony Meredith’s biography of Richard Rodney Bennett he gives an account of a concert where Susan Bradshaw, English composer and fellow student of Cardew, jumped out of her seat in the audience, leapt on stage and dragged Cardew away from the piano. Anything to make it stop.
I think I know how she felt. I wasn’t driven to yell ‘stop’. It was too well-crafted, too entertaining for that. We knew we were in safe hands, safe voices, with the Song Company.
I did, however get glimpses into Cardew’s relentless questioning, his moments of High Nihilism, and it was a scary place. Scary but necessary, because asking questions is what art is all about, and that’s why the Song Company is one of the bravest ensembles around.
Accidental Plans goes to Canberra on Friday 17 Feb, then Wollongong on 18 Feb, Melbourne on 20 Feb, Newcastle on 23 Feb, back to Sydney on 25 Feb, with a final concert at Richmond School of Arts on 3 March. Details here.
(BTW if you were at the concert, yes, I admit it, I was the one who walked in late. Sorry. No exciting excuse, just life getting in the way. My apologies to performers and audience.)
The 1956 photo above is from the Dartington International Summer School of Music’s archive, which I’m currently immersed in as I do doctoral studies and prepare a book for publication sometime next year. It’s crowdfunding at Unbound so you need to go and have a look and tell all your friends about it and pledge lots of money. Thanking you in advance.