Music: Richard Ayres/ Gilbert and Sullivan

By Bratby, Richard | The Spectator, April 27, 2019 | Go to article overview

Music: Richard Ayres/ Gilbert and Sullivan


Bratby, Richard, The Spectator


'I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,' wrote Stravinsky in one of his more honest moments, and when it comes to humour the old fox had a point. Strip away words, visuals, parody and extra-musical associations (the flatulent bassoon; the raspberry-blowing trumpet) and Orpheus, unaided, doesn't have much left in his comic armoury. Two concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall could almost have been test cases. Geoffrey Paterson conducted the London Sinfonietta in the UK première of No. 50 (The Garden) by Richard Ayres, a composer whose playful, surreal sensibility cheerfully jettisons any idea of music as an end in itself.

At least, that's been the case in the handful of his works that I've experienced live; namely his opera No. 47 (Peter Pan) and his 'animated concert' No. 42 (In the Alps) (like the artist Martin Creed, Ayres numbers each piece as if it's already an item in a catalogue -- a self-consciously artificial sonic object to be viewed from all sides). The Garden was virtuosically scored for a 12-piece band plus electronics, superbly integrated by Sound Intermedia, and maintaining an unsettling background burble of traffic noise, static buzz and birdsong, with occasional breaks into pounding dancefloor beats.

The bass Joshua Bloom ducked and darted through all this -- standing on an AstroTurf lectern and swinging crazily from Wagnerian thunder to wheedling falsetto as he adopted the roles, variously, of a narrator, a worm and a gloomy cyanobacterium. (Ayres claims to have assembled the text from Poe, Dante and Giacomo Leopardi, among others.) A row of shiny toy mushrooms sat in front of him, and a quick whack on one added another layer of electronic distortion. It was all very kooky, and Ayres's score is as busy as a toddler on a sugar rush. Titters ran through the audience as the brass players blew a baroque canzona, kazoo-like, through their mouthpieces alone. Elsewhere, Ayres sounded as though he was rummaging through a bumper box of musical Lego: straight edges, motor rhythms; a fragment of Mahler, a corner of Kurt Weill; all somehow clicking together in primary-coloured incongruity.

Whether the music would stand up in isolation was beside the point. From beginning to end it accompanied a film by Martha Colburn; a faux-naif collage of what looked like scratchboard animation and found images, occasionally flashing up a chunk of the text to deadpan effect. It felt a bit like something you might encounter at 1 a. …

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