The task of reviewing pieces written for the 20×12 Cultural Olympiad has been made more difficult (or perhaps irrelevant) for me, since few of them stand up as serious composition. Mostly the pieces do so deliberately and unassumingly, as in the case of Liz Liew and Andy Leung’s XX/XY: a programmatic musical span alluding to UK garage and traditional Eastern music and incorporating performers from the Urban Youth Junk Band, or in the case of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Beyond This: the result of a collaboration with prisoners and staff of HMP Lowdham Grange in which Turnage evidently had little artistic control, or in the case of jazz pianist Julian Joseph‘s The Brown Bomber, which sits better in a different genre.
However, there is one new commission that I feel worth my input. Aaron Cassidy‘s A Painter of Figures in Rooms was commissioned for performance by Exaudi under James Weeks and the score of the work, rather than specifying an aural result (e.g. pitch, dynamic etc.), directs players physiologically (e.g. by mouth shape, tension of the vocal folds, position of the glottis). The effect is that the traditional parametrization of non-temporal aspects of sound by pitch, dynamic, timbre, is replaced by one involving singers’ physiology. Cassidy admits (and perhaps celebrates) that this is not well defined – every singer is made differently, but essentially there are no intrinsic problems with this reparametrization: the parameters have enough independence from each other, and working backwards, given a collection of singers with known physical characteristics, any sound could in theory be notated.
Anyway, this is all before a note – or rather, a symbol – is written. The music itself is stylistically complex throughout – the surface is relentlessly detailed and contrapuntal - but the problem when so much of the interest is vertical or momentary is that a linear trajectory is weakened or sacrificed altogether. Perhaps ironically, the gestures which punctuate the musical surface end up being remarkably predictable in their linearity (usually soft to loud, low to high in pitch or the reverses).
A piece such is this could be difficult to criticise – I am no physiologist and, who knows, maybe a performance by a different group would provide answers to all my points! I admire the ambition of the piece’s conception (which is at odds with every other 20×12 commission I have come across so far), but defining a musical language or technique is not composition – what matters is what is said – and I am not convinced that the linear structure of the piece was as strong as it could have been. If the goals were richness of texture and counterpoint, perhaps the work could have been far shorter (taking horizontal aspects out of the equation altogether).
My overarching impressions of the 20×12 commissions that I have heard (and this includes the non-classical output) is that most are extramusical collaborations which have compromised the composers artistically – I just hope that the opportunity is (or was) taken to celebrate culture as it is, rather than how it can be made to project a certain image which fits in with the Olympics. The Cassidy commission is positive example – a serious composer, writing for a world-class vocal ensemble, each doing what they are best at doing. A Cultural Olympiad, not Culture For The Olympiad please.