Sangiorgi Theatre, Catania, Italy
Jan. 31, 2007

There are quite a few things that could be said when it comes to the current status (also from an economic point of view) of classical music, of its chances to have a legitimized role to play in a modern world which - following the model of the "share" concept off the TV world - assumes the point of view of the "everyman" (and what about the "everywoman"? have no fear, she's here too) as the privileged one, and of the specific strategies implemented by individual musicians in order to get commissions, funding and all that's needed not to sink. All things which are made both a) easier, since - at least for age reasons - classical musicians today are a lot more "in the know" when it comes to the labyrinths of non-classical music compared to the time when the Beatles were "the thing"; and b) more difficult, since classical musicians seem to breed like rabbits, hence a cake that gets smaller for an increasing number of mouths.

If we assume Lou Reed's old Metal Machine Music to be the rock equivalent of 4'33", the news that an ensemble playing classical music had decided to transcribe and perform a piece that had been considered first, as "unlistenable" and then, as "unplayable", appeared to be the perfect gimmick to make the name of a brand (Zeitkratzer) well-known, by throwing a morsel too succulent to be ignored by magazines always looking for something groovy and readers who find these kind of things well worth their time. Which obviously tells us nothing about the real artistic value of the finished product, which could well be of superior quality. Zeitkratzer playing at Sangiorgi Theatre in Catania? The theatre has fine acoustics, one can reserve one's seat, the price of the ticket is only eight euros... Let's go.

So I find myself sitting in the first row looking at the stage (where there is a carefully placed instrumentation) and reading the program, which announces performances of pieces by: Nicolas Collins, Reinhold Friedl, Manuel Göttsching (here it says: former Ashra Temple), Masami Akita (here it says: Merzbow), Lee Ranaldo (here it says: from Sonic Youth), Lou Reed and Elliott Sharp. From left, one can see a grand piano, violin, cello, double bass, drums, laptop etc., tuba, trumpet, saxophones and clarinets. The musicians of the ensemble are for the most part well-known, though the only one I had the chance to see live (a few years ago, at the Controindicazioni Festival in Rome, leading his own quartet, which impressed me very much) is the one sitting on the far right: Frank Gratkowski.

Then things get complicated: somebody goes on the stage to inform us in a German-accented English that what will be performed tonight will not be what we've just read in the program, but... What I understand is that the program will be significantly briefer (in the end, only five pieces will be performed, with no encore, for a total duration of about one hour, just like Ben Neill's concert of a few days before...); when it comes to which pieces will be performed, I understand that the opening piece will be the one by Merzbow, then (but I'm not sure exactly in what order) pieces by Lou Reed, Nicolas Collins, Elliott Sharp and one I don't get.

So we start with Merzbow. Here I have to say that the style of the composer (though not necessarily the title of the piece) is easy to recognize even for someone who, like this writer, knows his work just a bit. Though it's quite layered, the piece is in a way fairly static, so I find myself thinking about who's playing what: the piano player works on the piano innards, the strings produce mostly harmonics, the tuba and the trumpet blow air... but I have the unpleasant feeling that for the most part the sound I hear is coming from the laptop, with the loud drum set performing stiff rhythms. If I  understood correctly, there is something like an "electronic metronome/big clock with display" on a stand at the centre of the stage (I see it from the back, while musicians are in front of it) which is started by the piano player at the start of each piece, hence starts and endings which are very precise, and otherwise impossible.

Volume level is quite high, though not annoying if one is used to that of all rock concerts; the sound is clean. All the aforementioned items I mentioned a propos of Merzbow's piece - the instrumental work that appears to come for the most part from the laptop, the martial drums, the other instruments that don't really appear to come to the fore - appear again in the other pieces, and in the end it all starts sounding as a cheapening of the ideas of "classical avant-garde", which is now "for the masses". I think I was able to tell the "movement" off Metal Machine Music, while the track that to me sounded as being quite different from the others - looped samples of variable length, nice work from the tuba, acoustic instruments coming to the fore - to me sounded as having being written by Nicolas Collins. It goes without saying that this collective has some excellent qualities, but I'm not at all certain that the repertory that was performed (?) tonight proves this.

At the end of the concert I'm puzzled: the people in the audience (and they are not really young people) are enthusiastic, asking for an encore. So it's really "Merzbow for the masses" what we have here? I'll leave this terrible question for the reader to answer.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2007

CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 12, 2007