Classical, Experimental Music, New Music
Hospital Hill HHCD06140743
Reviewed by Alistair Noble, January 1st, 2015
Imagine you had to play a piece of music that was not just a graphic score, but a watercolour painting. For many musicians, this would be a nightmare. For some audiences, the listening might be a challenge too.
This CD is a recording of a particularly interesting and wonderful painted-score piece: David Young’s nicely titled Not Music Yet (2012) for solo piano. The score itself is rather beautiful; a swirling, abstract composition in subtle tones of black, blue and white. It has something of the air of a Turner seascape. The pianist, well known to new music fans, is the young virtuoso Zubin Kanga.
One thing needs to be said at the outset: this kind of music depends on whole-hearted collaboration. It takes a special kind of performer to undertake such a project, one who is not only imaginative and a true creator, but who also can absorb verbal input from the composer to supplement the notation. Similarly, this takes a special kind of composer: one who has a certain philosophical courage and commitment to the medium of the graphic score, and one who is able to both trust and inspire the performer in their heavy task of realising the work.
The heyday of the graphic score, in many ways, was the 1960s. A small group of composers like Sylvano Bussotti and Cornelius Cardew picked up on the ideas first put forward by pioneers like Morton Feldman and Earle Brown back in the early 1950s, developing the notion of non-conventional music notation into elaborate and artistic scores. The danger, however, as Morton Feldman often pointed out, was that the performer might play the wrong notes (!). In this context, the whole 50s/60s graphic score fad revolved around one key figure: the formidable and fearless pianist David Tudor, for whom many of these works were written. Tudor, apparently, always played the right notes.
There has been an interesting revival of graphic scoring in Australia in the past couple of years. In jazz, trumpeter Reuben Lewis performs similarly painterly works, and last year in Melbourne we heard Arcko Symphonic performing Caerwen Martin’s X-ray Baby (2012)—and yes, you guessed it: this involves x-rays and ultrasounds.
In the case of Not Music Yet, we have evidence in this recording of a great collaboration. The work arises from the powerful and clear imagination of Berlin-based Australian David Young, and also depends vitally on the committed and creative performance of Kanga. The two have clearly worked on this project very deeply together. Despite the unconventional appearance of the score, Young has very clear ideas about how it should be realised, and obviously a great deal of this has been communicated in written notes and also verbal discussion. In the instructions with the score, Young writes ‘While by its nature, this notation has many freedoms, every attempt should be made to realise the graphics’ contours and shapes as carefully and precisely as possible.” Well fine, but how exactly does one do that?
In this case, Not Music Yet may be performed in two ways—a short version of 7 minutes or a long version of 42 minutes. In each case, the work consists of three parts (almost movements) with each being a single-colour sweep through the score from left to right. First the pianist plays the black parts of the score, then the blue, and finally the white.
On this beautifully recorded CD, Kanga gives us both long and short readings of the work as performed on a Stuart and Sons piano. Both are thoroughly effective in my view, as genuinely alternate versions of the same score. Kanga plays with authority, and arrays a rich palette of sonic colours. Making use of a wide range of playing techniques, including a great deal of work inside the piano on the strings, he finds ways to express the score in terms of surprisingly multifaceted and polyphonic textures. His playing in this recording is a delight to hear; sheer listening pleasure. And the music? Well, perhaps the score is aptly titled Not Music Yet, but from the moment you press play this CD gives forth real, undoubted music: I love it. The work would be a real treat to hear in a live performance.
This CD project is an important one, I feel, in so far as it gives solid evidence of just how interesting a high-level collaboration between artists can be. Certainly, this is very much the work of Kanga, who brings the piece to life in a unique way, but equally it is a testament to the creative imagination and aesthetic commitment of the composer David Young.
The CD comes in a very nicely designed case the size of a small paperback book, with beautiful reproductions of the score and a thoughtful and informative essay written by the pianist.