Interview: John Harris on Crumb, Varèse & Andriessen

First published in The Herald on 7 September, 2016

“It’s all completely wrong!” says John Harris, co-artistic director of Red Note Ensemble, by which he really means it is all completely right. Harris is talking about the notion of staging George Crumb’s modern classic Vox Balaenae underneath the body of a Concorde airplane — which is what Red Note are doing at this year’s Lammermuir Festival in a concert at the National Museum of Flight in East Lothian: audience under the belly of the plane, musicians between the wheels. Crumb’s iconic 1970s score is as much a salutation to the wonders of the natural world as the Concorde is to the wonders of machine technology, and for Harris, a clanger of a paradox like that is an ideal place to start any concert programming.

Actually, though, the setting makes more sense than it might first seem, because Vox Balaenae’s original timeliness was the way it highlighted the relationship between humans and nature at exactly the moment when whales were becoming the emblem of a new campaign for environmental awareness. In the late 1960s, Crumb, an American experimental composer now aged 89, heard a tape recording made by marine scientists of the sounds of humpback whales. He was so mesmerised that a few years later he created Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for a trio electric flute, cello and amplified piano.

No humpback whales were actually used in the making of this piece; instead its half-lit sonorities and liminal textural play are created by extended instrumental techniques and amplification. Vox Balaenae is a prototype of what’s known as biomusic — sounds created or inspired by natural biology (animals, trees, heartbeats, breathing) rather than formal composition procedures. “Although art can derive from nature and can suggest or recreate it,” Crumb would later explain, “they’re actually two different things.”

What audiences often remember most clearly about Vox Balaenae is not so much those abstract evocations of humpback songs as the innate theatricality of the performance. Crumb specifies that the musicians should wear masks, because “by effacing a sense of human projection, [the masks] will symbolise the powerful, impersonal faces of nature”. He also suggests that the performance space should be bathed in blue light, which is probably an easier one to unpick: the blueness makes the whole experience feel, well, sea-like. Some listeners find that these ritualistic props and lighting help them focus the ear and mind on the timbral marvels in Crumb’s score. For Harris, “all the stage gubbins can be a bit of a distraction, to be honest. I can report that there have been a lot of mask-related emails going back and forth between Red Note members over the last few days. Mask angst.”

Masked or unmasked, Vox Balaenae is supremely subtle and eloquent music. After the 1972 premiere at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the critic of the Washington Daily News concluded that “even if future performances are played in the nude, or wrapped in tin foil, Crumb’s score will remain a powerful evocation, filled with pools of lyric inspiration to delight chamber music lovers for some time to come”. And he was right.

Red Note’s Lammermuir concert frames Vox Balaenae with music taken from the far reaches of the 20th century musical spectrum. The programme opens with Edgard Varese’s Deserts — an anthemic confrontation between electronic and orchestral sounds that Harris describes as “modernism in its purest form”. In the early 1950s, Varese with gifted an Ampex reel-to-reel tape machine and off he went, recording sound samples in factories and creating music that would conjure desert landscapes both physical and psychological. This music is searingly internal as well as spectacularly pictoral and that’s the way Varese wanted it: “physical deserts on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities,” he described. “But also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.” For the novelist Henry Miller, “when Verese mentions the earth and its inert, drugged inhabitants, you can see him trying to get hold of it by the tail and swing it around his head.”

At the premiere of Deserts in Paris in early December 1954, the electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry was in charge of operating the tape part. The performance was broadcast live on French radio between pieces by Mozart and Tchaikovsky and the audience wasn’t ready for it and responded with jeers and whistles. Six decades later, the piece still sounds heroically strange and radical. At Lammermuir the Red Note performance will be accompanied by a vibrantly coloured accompanying film made in 1994 by the American video artist Bill Viola.

To end the concert, Red Note jumps forward to the clanging mega-minimalism of Louis Andriessen’s 1975 Workers Union, this time played to a freshly-commissioned black-and-white film by the sound artist Zoe Irvine. Andriessen is a 77-year-old Dutch composer who made his mark as brazen leftist musical activist when he imported American minimalism to Europe and powered it into irreverent, industrial overdrive. His music from the Workers Union era delivers its message at full throttle, which usually means raucous and propulsive and loud. The piece was composed for his ensemble De Volharding (Perseverance) whose mouthy street band politics was a founding inspiration behind Red Note. Just like a community, just like a social movement, Workers Union chugs along in messy unison. “This piece is a combination of individual freedom and severe discipline,” Andriessen has said. ”It is difficult to play in an ensemble and to remain in step, sort of thing like organising and carrying on political action.”

And although it is close to a polar opposite in sonic terms, Andriessen also brings us right back to Crumb’s Vox Balaenae — or at least to the conundrum of natural sounds versus organised, man versus environment. Here is why, to borrow again from Andriessen’s own words: “Many composers view the act of composing as, somehow, above social conditioning. I contest that. How you arrange your musical material, the techniques you use and the instruments you score for, are largely determined by your own social circumstances and listening experience, and the availability of financial support. I do agree, though, that abstract musical material – pitch, duration and rhythm – are beyond social conditioning: it is found in nature.”

Red Note Ensemble performs music by George Crumb, Louis Andriessen and Edgar Varese at the National Museum of Flight on 16 September, part of the Lammermuir Festival


Red Note’s Lammermuir concert sees the debut of a new training scheme that integrates into the ensemble young players on the cusp of becoming contemporary music professionals. As John Harris explains: “We got an an email from the Paris Conservatoire, more or less out of the blue, saying that they were looking to provide their students with an alternative experience than what they get from working with the Ensemble intercontemporain. Red Note is known for going out and finding an audience. We take an approach that is very proactive — we have to! So Paris wanted their students to have a flavour of that approach.” The Sibelius Academy in Helsinki jumped on board, too, so at the Lammernuir Festival next week, Red Note’s forces will be bolstered by 11 doctoral-level students from Helsinki, Paris and Glasgow’s own Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.