Michael Torke arr T Armstrong & P Wilson – Vanada
David Lang – Cheating, Lying, Stealing
Steve Martland arr J Godfrey – Shoulder to Shoulder
John Godfrey – Euthanasia and Garden Implements
Louis Andriessen – Hoketus (live)
Felmay: fy 7002
Icebreaker began life in 1989, at a time when several of the younger composers in England were looking for a new kind of contemporary music. They were tired of English composers who wrote operas about sheep. They wanted contemporary music with balls.
The new music coming from Holland was the perfect antidote to the official contemporary music scene in London. It seemed much more vital, more energetic, more up-to-date. James Poke and John Godfrey, finished with their composition studies in England, travelled to Amsterdam, met with Louis Andriessen in a bar late at night, drank whisky and talked in revolutionary tones about what was wrong with contemporary music.
Icebreaker was formed, partly under the stimulus of these meetings, in order to play some of this Dutch music as well as new music by composers in and outside the band–composers attracted to Andriessen’s aggressive idiom, which he himself has characterised as “avant-garde minimal music that also dealt with jazz from the twenties.” Andriessen’s piece Hoketus, completed in 1977, gives a good idea of his sound world. Scored for two identical instrumental groups, each comprising panpipes, saxophone, two pianos, bass guitar and congas, the piece employs a very old musical technique, that of hocketing, with very new results. Chords or single notes alternate, at a fast tempo, between the two instrumental groups, resulting in a constant musical back-and-forth. Andriessen says that the piece can become a “gigantic, dancing machine humaine”; never has it sounded so evil as in Icebreaker’s version, here taken from a live performance in 1991.
John Godfrey’s Euthanasia and Garden Implements, first performed in 1990, was one of the first pieces to be specially written for Icebreaker; more than that, it helped the band define the kind of music they wanted to play. What, audiences have asked, does the title mean? What or whom should be put to sleep? And what are the garden implements referred to? Saxophones? Godfrey comments that “the use of facetious titles [in this and other Icebreaker repertoire] was a reaction against the type of piece that needed a major title and explanatory notes to make any kind of sense at all”. The title is in any case thoroughly irrelevant to the music, which has a gentleness amidst all the exuberance (including a romantic bit in the middle which, as one band member puts it, is like listening to Rachmaninov with a bad hangover).
The English composer Steve Martland studied with Andriessen in the early 1980s. His piece Shoulder to Shoulder was originally written for – or, as Martland puts it, “produced in collaboration with” – Andriessen’s “street orchestra” De Volharding (Perseverance) in 1986. De Volharding, in its early days at least, was a band with a strongly left-wing political ideology. They were committed to bringing contemporary music to unusual venues such as the street, political demonstrations, or union meetings, trying “to change the means of making music as a way of changing music itself”. Martland says: “The compositional subject of Shoulder to Shoulder is explained by the title which also dictates the playing technique and relates to the fundamental principle of the political work—solidarity.” John Godfrey’s arrangement gives the work a fresh sound and a somewhat different style; the instrumentation has changed from the communal “playing together” of groups of like-sounding instruments to something more individualistic and virtuosic.
One of the composers whose music Icebreaker was attracted to early on was the American Michael Torke, though despite his great enthusiasm for Icebreaker’s performances of his work this particular composer-ensemble relationship has not so far produced any new music. Vanada was written in 1984 when its composer was still a student. The title is a combination of the names of Van and Ada, two characters from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Ada. In an obscure and probably unimportant way, phrases from Nabokov’s text seem to have fed Torke’s compositional imagination; a few of them are incorporated into the score (“Scient Ada’s nicest insect”, “With harbored arbored ardor”, etc). Originally for chamber ensemble with a soloistic piano part, it was arranged for Icebreaker by Pete Wilson and Tom Armstrong, retaining the piano part and transferring sounds from synthesizers to live instruments: Torke had specified things like pan-pipe sounds which Icebreaker’s unusual instrumentation could supply “live”. Vanada is an energetic and inventive treatment of quite simple ideas, and adds a rough edge to materials that are not so far from the rhythms and harmonies of pop music.
The newest piece on this disk is Cheating, Lying, Stealing by David Lang. Originally written in 1995 for the six musicians of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the “in-house” ensemble of New York’s Bang on a Can Festival (of which Lang is a co-founder), it was arranged for Icebreaker by the composer. Lang says: “I wanted to make a piece that was about something disreputable. It’s a hard line to cross. You have to work against all your training. You are not taught to find the dirty seams in music. You are not taught to be lowdown, clumsy, sly and underhanded. In Cheating, Lying, Stealing, although phrased in a comic way, I am trying to look at something dark. There is a swagger, but it is not trustworthy. In fact, the instruction on the score for how to play it says: Ominous funk.”