Prom 44: Cage, Ligeti and all

From ticking metronomes to the sounds of silence

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After the tidal wave of artistic mediocrity that was the Olympics closing ceremony, what a relief to witness genius, unadorned. The focus of the London Sinfonietta’s inspired Late Night Prom was on men and machines, but in each case the composer’s spirit had pierced through the technology and delivered a unique existential insight.

Ligeti’s ticking metronomes in Poème symphonique may start off sounding as if someone forgot to switch off the air-conditioning, but as they gradually falter we find ourselves gripped by a huddle of metronomes who’ve survived the onslaught and creak lopsidedly towards silence. Ligeti knew what it was to survive: his message is clear. Morever, this, most apparently cerebral of experiments, was in fact inspired by a childhood tale of a house full of ticking clocks, an atmosphere eerily evoked even in Albert Hall.

Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos plango, vivos voco (1980) is one of the most beautiful artworks to emerge from the IRCAM institute in Paris: from out of the immersive, unearthly tolling bell with its 33 overtones, his son’s treble voice skittered around the hall like some angelic haunting. Given Harvey’s own failing health, there was something almost unbearably poignant about Sound Intermedia’s realisation in the dimmed hall: it’s a work that hovers between the living and the dead.

A spry Louis Andriessen came on stage to introduce his own time experiment, Der Snelheid (Velocity) in which two woodblock players inexorably speed up in the midst of three distinct orchestral groups, the whole underpinned by the unchanging beat of bass drum and tom toms. Like Ligeti’s piece in reverse, it’s a compelling live drama, and the London Sinfonietta and players from their Academy, gave it their best shot, though conductor André de Ridder never managed to put a spring in its step.

Two composers fascinated by the dynamic tension between instrument and musician were Berio and Xenakis, represented in two powerful virtuosic pieces. Trombonist Byron Fulcher, dressed as Grock the clown, gave a bravura performance of Berio’s extraordinary Sequenza V, blowing, singing and speaking his way through a drama of sad, almost surreal, enchantment. You could feel the sheer force of Xenakis’s personality in the Sinfonietta’s intensely committed performance of Phlegra (1975). Constructed of sinewy sonic lengths, coalescing into broader sheets with semi- and quarter-tones, contrasted with pulsing wind scales, the whole is driven by untrammelled energy.

Finally came John Cage’s 4’33”, his meditation on – well, noise, really. Exhibitionists in the hall indulged in some unconvincing antiphonal coughing. Not one mobile phone rang, and the silence, when it came, was of that rapt quality only a Proms audience can achieve.

It was a shame that this hallowed moment was broken by the whirring of an almost inaudible ‘live remix’ by Matthew Herbert, and a planned flash-mob texting cacophony which amounted to a smatter of faint beeps. The whole message of this concert was that if you have an idea, take it to its ultimate conclusion: after a parade of visionary giants, this was no place for small-time mash-ups.