Festivals acquire a significant part of their character from geographical context, and London Contemporary Music Festival could hardly have picked a better location for their three-day exploration of the music of Bernard Parmegiani. Second Home, a new performance space in Shoreditch, is just off the road—and thereby infused with the smells and atmosphere—from Brick Lane, a perfect environment for Parmegiani’s music, laden with its own unique blend of spice, heat and fragrance. Parmegiani’s death late last year was more than just a profound blow to fans of acousmatic music, it was a better-late-than-never wake-up call to the realisation that the entire world of electronic music, in all its multiplicitous guises, had lost one of its most forward-looking practitioners, blessed with a combination of imaginative and technical skill largely unmatched by his contemporaries (and many of his successors). That wouldn’t sound like such a bold statement if more people were aware of the astonishments to be found in Parmegiani’s music. Hot on the heels of BEAST’s celebration last month, LCMF have provided considerable additional momentum to the urgency for an in-depth re-appreciation and appraisal of Parmegiani’s output, an appraisal that surely cannot fail to reveal him as a compositional pillar of the twentieth century, and perhaps electronic music’s most radical visionary to date.
The three evenings presented works from throughout Bernard Parmegiani’s career. These included a brace of films; one, a short tribute created recently by the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, provided a tantalising glimpse into Parmegiani’s thinking and background (including his past experience as a mime artist). The other, L’ecran transparent (‘the transparent screen’), an experimental film dating from 1973, was in some ways quite striking, but had the effect of considerably diminishing the allusive power of Parmegiani’s music, reducing it to a mere accompaniment to visuals that were both dated and limited in scope. The festival also featured live sets from three contemporary musicians. The first, from Bristol’s Seb Gainsborough, aka Vessel, took the form of a blank canvas processional. There were episodes of plausibility in Vessel’s incessant knob-noodling, leading to interesting pockets of dense interplay, but a pervading arbitrariness robbed the performance of emotional veracity and structural integrity. Berlin’s Rashad Becker survived slightly more unscathed, beginning (after a false start) in an interesting anthropological world populated by the cries, snuffles, grunts and calls of any number of invented fauna (redolent of his superb album from last year, Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. I). Becker’s use of the space was good, his soundstage broad and enveloping, but the tone of the performance shifted after about 15 minutes, the first of a number of subsequent train-of-thought refreshes that gradually eroded his initially coherent stream of consciousness. It perpetuated far, far too long, and by its exhausted end, Becker wasn’t so much flogging a head horse as gazing with idle amusement at the kicks and spasms generated from putting electricity through its corpse. Muted applause and multiple walkouts testified that we were not so amused. His compatriot Florian Hecker brought the festival to an end in spectacular fashion, the only one of the three to make meaningful use of the intricate surround set-up implemented for Parmegiani’s work. Hecker’s material was deceptive, suggesting development but actually relying on juxtaposition of gesture: objects arose, stated their identity (involving brief flurries of variation or longer demonstrations of process) before being swept aside by the next. There’s a debate to be had whether such fast, free-form evolution, absent of material hierarchies, can (or indeed intends to) form a cohesive argument. Yet for all Hecker’s fetishistic attitude to novelty, one couldn’t be anything other than smitten by his deeply impressive imaginative range and fantastic use of the space. His closing salvo, minute sign-offs from the assortment of surround speakers, was nothing less than perfect.
Another debate to be had, though, was quite what connections one might draw between these disparate performers and the music of Bernard Parmegiani. To my mind, notwithstanding elements of Hecker’s music, the differences were not just contrasting but downright oppositions of aesthetic. Irrespective of Parmegiani’s noted interest in improvisation, the fixed nature of his (and most) acousmatic work presupposes significant differences in terms of both thought and intention (and, of course, execution) from those displayed by live electronic improvisers. Examples of contemporary acousmatic composers would have made for a more meaningful comparison.
So, what of Parmegiani? LCMF’s selection of works was well-judged and thought-provoking, illuminating the complex nature of his music. The earlier works often conveyed a composer drawn to concrete extremes. The 1964 work for violin and tape, Violostries, should have debunked 50 years ago the myth still prevalent today that electronics cannot integrate seamlessly with acoustic instruments. Has a tape part ever sounded so interactive? Sounds passed back and forth between soloist and speakers, the work’s impetus similarly shifting between the two. This piece, the first to be heard at the festival, established the extraordinary restraint that typifies Parmegiani’s work (a quality somewhat easy to forget when one’s marvelling at its immensity); lengthy periods of soft, slow drift in which sound materials only gradually coalesce and find both mass and momentum. It also offered some wonderful examples of the way he transitions concrete sounds into entirely abstract textures, devoid of anecdotal connotation, transitions where it’s practically impossible to discern the point where one becomes the other. Aisha Orazbayeva’s playing brought out fully the lyricism that is the work’s most essential quality; it was a genuinely spell-binding performance. As the weekend progressed, we also witnessed a composer fascinated by the interplay between fixed and mobile sonic entities. Sometimes, as in the second movement of Pour en finir avec le pouvoir d’Orphée from 1972, this manifested itself via multiple competing elements, disparate tempi with their own timbral concerns challenging each other repeatedly. Elsewhere, in 1971’s La roue ferris, this found expression via a narrow ‘tube’ of pitches acting as a fixed focal point about which diverse collections of sounds showered and sparked like meteors. Parmegiani’s treatment of concrete sounds is audibly more abstract in many of his later works, a couple of which were featured in the festival’s closing night. Rouge mort, from 1987, a work drawing on Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen, greatly reduces (and, indeed, confuses) the identifying marks of its sources, lending the material both an aural and connotational weightlessness; and it’s worth highlighting the harsh electronic timbres of the third movement (Séduction Froide), that sound remarkably modern by anyone’s standards. Espèces d’espaces, also featured in Birmingham last month, easily bears repeated hearings of its weirdly biological soundworld, showcasing Parmegiani’s skill at making sounds simultaneously alien and familiar, to unsettling effect.
But it was the opening night rendition of La Création du Monde that made the most overwhelming impression of the festival. Quite apart from being Parmegiani’s masterpiece, this 70-minute behemoth may well be the greatest of all acousmatic works. The words “du monde” are instructive; Parmegiani is not here concerned with the infinite or ethereal (as in, for example, Violostries). There is, literally, a world of difference in La Création du Monde; these are, without being anthropomorphic, mortal sounds, fusing into corporeality. Its mortality can also be felt in the structural device of triptych or trilogy, so often used to explore humanity’s most elevated themes. Appropriately, Parmegiani makes evolution of sound a fundamental facet of the work, from elemental disjecta membra through quasi animal sounds (especially birds) to allusions to man-made implements (most strikingly evoking an angklung). Like so many trilogies, its central panel—Métamorphose du vide—stood apart in character, mysterious and enigmatic, whereas the final movement bordered on the terrifying, suggesting a hoard of homunculi rampaging around the upper levels of the performance space. This astonishing effect was aided in no small part by the brilliant diffusion of this section by BEAST’s Jonty Harrison, and all of the festival’s diffusers—Harrison, Denis Smalley, Peiman Khosravi, Diana Salazar (apart from Aisha Orazbayeva, the only appearance by a woman at the festival), Aki Pasoulas, Ambrose Seddon and Daniel Teruggi—deserve praise for the imaginative ways they extruded Parmegiani’s music throughout the space.
LCMF have done something rare and important by dedicating three evenings to Bernard Parmegiani’s music, and one can only hope that this serves to inspire concert and festival organisers around the world in the years ahead. As festivals go, LCMF has work to do to resolve various issues of presentation; their predilection for intervals turned the second concert into a sprawling four-hour shambles, and throughout every concert there were people constantly—constantly—walking around the performance space and on the upper gantries, becoming a major distraction (concerts certainly can be casual, but listening surely ought not to be). Yet in hindsight these are niggles that don’t withstand the significance of what we heard in these three remarkable evenings. In a word, wow.