The following is reprinted from the Angelica festival program, where the Hands of Caravaggio was presented in May 2001.
q) Tell me about MIMEO, and Caravaggio.
a) MIMEO marks a departure and a distinction from the "end point aesthetics" of "power drummer" based groups, and a move towards the orchestra as a collection of "objets trouvés", reflecting recent developments both in technology, synthesizers, computers and the contemporary aesthetics of ambient, plunderphonics and improvisation.
q) What's at the centre of this shift?
a) I guess it's about the doubt laden transition from the world of scarcity (analogue spectrum) to the one of plenty (digital spectrum). Within the orchestra these spectrums are reflected by the group primitive and the computers. MIMEO takes two features from the twentieth century into the twenty-first, improvisation and electronics. MIMEO's music is worked around choice and juxtaposition of materials, a kind of "post techno Duchampianism".
q) Is the organization and running of MIMEO reflected in the technology?
a) Yes. MIMEO consults/runs/operates through a kind of e-mail democracy, it employs a collaborative method of working, decentralized, emphasizing discussion, in fact very much like many classical orchestras. And of course e-mail allows a day to day dialogue between all the members equally, despite being spread across Europe. Without this technology MIMEO could not function in the way that it does, which would certainly impact on the music -- you could say that e-mail has a direct effect on the actual music performed.
q) And not like a jazz orchestra which is normally the preserve of one person, one idea, one concept, one name.
q) So what about Caravaggio?
a) The Hands of Caravaggio draws together many strands found in MIMEO, the Caravaggio painting itself (from 1602-3, thought to be lost, but rediscovered in Dublin in 1990). The work is surprising because of its animation of the hands and heads, almost to the point of being a cross between a series of stills from a film, and a 'caught in the act' tabloid photo taken with a flash gun.
q) How is this reflected in the orchestra?
a) The first part of the performance features the 'inside piano' modified 'E' bow technique of Cor Fuhler, then he is joined by John Tilbury. Tilbury's playing reflecting history -- "every time a note, a chord, is played, the history of the piano comes back at you. There is no escape!". His playing emulates the positions of the hands in the painting, the open hand of the fleeing disciple, the hands of Christ closed/clinched/internal, the hands of Judas contradictory/holding and pushing/betraying. The hand of Caravaggio holding a lamp (flickering light/image). The orchestra moving and shifting around the piano, relates to the faces, for the most part profiles, perhaps suggesting obliqueness. The filmic and flash reference in the painting leads us to Jéréme Noetinger, his association with the group Cellule d'Intervention Metamkine and his work within MIMEO. His use of the 'flash gun and radio' technique, somehow reminds of the chiaroscuro (the use of light and shade) and reflection in the painting, the glint of light refelected from the temple guard's armour, the flash frozen image of a modern press photo. For the orchestra, this is translated into the use of the 'flash gun and radio' technique within the performance, by most or all of the players. General darkness is also a feature of the performance, again reminding us of the dramatic contrast between light and dark found in the painting.
Program notes by Keith Rowe, May 2001, Nantes, France
What does the word suggest to us today? A pianist or violinist fighting against the might of a symphony orchestra? Or a friendly dialogue? The origin of the word is still debated, but most likely it derives from 'concertare'. The trouble is that in Latin that meant 'to contend, to dispute', but in Italian it soon came to mean 'to arrange, to agree'. (We, too, speak of 'concerted action'.) So from the start there was conflict: conflict between conflict itself and cooperation.
From the start, too, therefore, a dramatic element was implied, and the proliferation of music that could be labelled 'concerto' coincided with the period in which opera emerged and became important: the Baroque, which in music lasted from about 1600 to about 1750. 'Baroque', in turn, means extravagant, ornate. And so all the elements of the concerto are now in place.
In the seventeenth century, the word was frequently applied to vocal works that contrasted the voices with instruments that did not merely double and reinforce the vocal lines but had independent accompaniments. By the eighteenth, it usually meant a purely instrumental piece; but even then contrast-rich vocal works like Bach's church cantatas, with sections for one or two voices and others for many, and with independent instrumental accompaniments, were sometimes called 'sacred concertos'.
The instrumental form that developed towards the end of the seventeenth century Ð Corelli was its master Ð was the concerto grosso, in which the principal players of the ensemble were given episodes of instrumental virtuosity between passages in which they merely led their sections of the full band. Thus there was a group of soloists, the concertino, and the episodes were more a matter of the less proficient players dropping out for a while than of the soloists' dramatic entries into the limelight. But in the early decades of the eighteenth century Vivaldi and his Italian contemporaries began to develop concertos in which there was only a single solo instrument, string or woodwind, and it seems to have been Bach, greatly influenced by Vivaldi, who extended the idea to the harpsichord (which, in ensemble pieces, had hitherto merely filled out the harmony) and later Handel, who wrote organ concertos.
A single keyboard instrument, unlike a string or wind soloist, can play extended episodes by itself without the need for any accompaniment from the rest of the ensemble. The relatively stable half-century that we call the Classical period, which separated the high Baroque of Vivaldi, Bach and Handel from the Romantic nineteenth century, saw the full development of the piano concerto into a form with complete contrast between the virtuosic and self-sufficient soloist and the orchestra Ð above all in that astonishing series of twenty-seven infinitely varied masterpieces by Mozart. The proliferation of public concerts in bigger and bigger halls, moreover, led to a leapfrogging competition between bigger and bigger orchestras and louder and louder pianos.
This period culminated in the great concertos of Beethoven, who in this field as in all others, brought Classical strength of structure and perfection of form to its highest point at the same time as he sowed the seeds of the Romantic revolution. From this point of view the crucial piece is the slow movement of his fourth piano concerto. As if conscious of its historical position, its orchestration looks back to the Baroque by being for the strings of the orchestra alone. But they are a brusque, aggressive force, against which the soloist stands out not by power or virtuosity, but by hushed, poetic expression. At a stroke, the soloist as lonely poet, Romantic hero, misunderstood and disregarded but ultimately subjugating the mindless mass, is born, paralleling the change of status of the artist or composer from employed servant of an aristocratic master to independent equal in an increasingly middle-class world formed by the French and the Industrial revolutions.
Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, this has remained the model of the concerto, at least with the exception of neoclassical (or rather neo-Baroque) works by Stravinsky and some others, though the solo parts have become increasingly exhibitionistic in their virtuosity. Explicitly programmatic concertos that give musical expression to the emotions associated with an extra-musical idea, image or story, like that characteristically-Romantic form, the symphonic poem, have, however, been lacking since the early eighteenth century, when Vivaldi, for instance, exploited the new-found variety and contrasts of figuration and sonority made available by the concerto style for programmatic purposes (The Four Seasons being only the best-known examples). (It is precisely the lack of concerto-like display that Paganini complained of in Berlioz' Harold in Italy which allowed it to be an exception in this respect.) More recently, a few examples of programmatic concertos have appeared, and The Hands of Caravaggio is a complex, historically aware example. But the gradual changes in the relationship of the elite solo group and later the single soloist to the rest of the ensemble or orchestra, and the precarious balance between opposition and cooperation, have, implicitly but powerfully, embodied the social and aesthetic history of Western culture during the last four centuries.
© 2002 Michael Graubart
As I enter the arena to take my place at an instrument, a much-vaunted example of nineteenth century technology, literally surrounded, incongruously and vulnerably, by electronic gadgetry of awesome creative and destructive power, Marcuse's thesis comes to my mind -- "the traditional notion of 'neutrality' of technology can no longer be maintained". I venture a quip: "In one second you guys can eliminate me once and for all." Jérôme Noetinger corrects me: "less than a second".
So the past (like the present) is constantly under threat; lives in a constant state of exposure and insecurity (instant obsolescence). The vulnerability and fragility of the piano is obvious. Consider the contemporary plight of the beautiful and famous 19th century piano piece Fur Elise: diminished in resonance and sensuality, stripped of content, forced to inhabit the meanest spectrum of electronic sound -- simply a trigger for the use of a mobile phone. The past (like the present) has to contend with the self-confidence, the arrogance of the new and powerful (the willful elimination of rogue cultures). Moreover, as the families of thousands of unfortunates will attest, even in the hands of the well-intentioned, the God-fearing, the newest and most sophisticated technology can malfunction, hitting the wrong target: the wrong people, the wrong building, or, less catastrophically, the wrong sound.
To be 'musical' at the piano demonstrates a profound paradox: on the one hand, extreme fingertip sensitivity and control -- embodying the notion of intention -- and on the other hand the recognition, through an awareness of the contingent, of the ultimate impossibility, indeed the undesirability, of control. Intimately, at close quarters, as it were, the performer experiences the vulnerability of intention and the inevitability, and acceptance, of failure. One is reminded of Samuel Beckett's famous dictum: "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." To be 'musical at the piano', is to LISTEN. To enjoy the autonomy of sustained piano sounds (even they can be brutally eliminated by movement of the dampers; the piano can self-destruct); to be ignorant of the various trajectories of the sounds emanating from the instrument. In the Hands of Caravaggio, attempting to negotiate a musical path through the engulfing electronic sound, the piano exploits a rare hiatus, filters through tiny gaps, hairspaces; those sounds which succeed in flying the coop seek out, in and around the space , the nooks and crannies in which their unique resonances find subtle expression. The uncatchability of those sounds. Yet the drama, the -- at the time -- palpable tension, does not find expression in the end product (the recording), for all its virtues: a kind of technological revisionism neutralizes the profound contradictions which characterized the relationship between the starkly differentiated forces comprising the ensemble on that memorable occasion.
But the idea of a 'piano concerto' is a felicitous one; the tables are turned; the soloist as 'anti-hero'. Or victim. In this performance whole areas of the instrument, including traditional keyboard techniques, are rendered inaccessible to the 'soloist' by a creative hijacking of the inside of the instrument by a member of the 'orchestra' who, for example, randomly mutes pitches which the soloist has selected. A frustrating but challenging situation for the degraded soloist. Imagine, analagously, a violinist's bowing technique being physically disrupted, the guitarist's preaprations suddenly disappearing, the power supply cut off. It reminds me of the Scratch Orchestra's Houdini Rite where, bound hand and foot, we would then attempt to play our instruments.
The idea of a personal musical agenda whose demands in (collective) performance are met regardless, is a contentious issue, for to the richness and diversity of the sound material must be added an even more potent source to draw upon: one's fellow musicians. This moral dimension is encapsulated in Iris Murdoch's words: "Moral change comes from an attention to the world whose natural result is a decrease in egoism through an increased sense of the reality of, primarily, of course, other people." At the end of a brilliant essay entitled Towards An Ethic of Improvisation, Cornelius Cardew listed 'virtues' (a quaint word for a nowadays quaint notion) that a musician might develop; there are seven, of which the fourth reads: "Forbearance: Improvising in a group you have to accept not only the frailties of your fellow musicians, but also your own. Overcoming your instinctual revulsion against whatever is out of tune (in the broadest sense.)"
To return to the beginning of this text, and to Marcuse: "[We can speak of] democratic unfreedom ... in the sense of man's subjection to his production apparatus." I assume that Marcuse is referring here to both victims and 'perpetrators'. -- John Tilbury, Deal, England, January 2002
Herbert Marcuse, "One Dimensional Man," Beacon Press
Cornelius Cardew, "Treatise Handbook," Edition Peters
Iris Murdoch, "Metaphysics as a Guide To Morals," Penguin Books
Being in the fortunate situation of having the best seat in the house, residing right in the middle of the circle made by MIMEO and the speakers ("the Orchestra") and with my head hanging right in the piano (the "soloist") next to the microphone, I caught much of what this cd eventually sounds like.
Keith's idea to have a contemporary version of the piano concerto was an interesting one and it forced MIMEO to take a stand in this long and particular tradition, with the start perfectly symbolizing the connection beween electronics and acoustics, with an electric machine (an E-bow) vibrating the piano strings, resulting in a sinewave-like but 100% acoustic sound.
The idea also seems a logical and long overdue one. Electronic musicians and their powerful tools nowadays can form/imitate whole sections of instruments or even complete bands instantly, and the members of MIMEO have a diverse enough background to think along comparable orchestral groupings like strings, percussion, horns and in functions like melodic lines, harmonic guestures or rhythmical patterns.
Personally, having to play the piano in this situation, much of what you can do depends on the density, colour, volume and register of the orchestra and playing inside the piano doesn't make it any easier since all volume levels drop. Also, playing the piano with 4 hands makes it even more layered; John's choices depending on where I put objects, mine depending on his foot pressing the pedals and on the register within he chooses to play the keys. Actually, I consider this to be a contemporary version of the piano duet; a genre of its own with a rich history in which we had to take a stand as well. This, according to my perception, added another group to the "inner workings" of MIMEO (well established since our 24-hour concert in France a year before), simplistically consisting of the so-called "primitives", the "powerbooks" and now also "the piano" with its own musical and multiple psychological layers. The size, state and quality of the piano is another issue, making the piano group even more handicapped as it was already volumewise. But as always, a handicap has to be used to its full capacity: one of the nicest moments for me was when somebody played a loud clear pitched note and the piano string corresponding in pitch started resonating ferociously: I then placed a metal object on that string. So now that string was played by three people: the Orchestra member, me and John (by holding the sustain-pedal) without any one of us actually touching the piano! Very surreal and magical. Another favorite moment is when the Orchestra becomes quiet and the piano being played with spacy chords (on the keys and inside with a wine bottle as giant bottleneck) that I vote to be used as a soundtrack for "forbidden planet 2" if it ever will be made. The piano being out of tune at first made me have second thoughts to this whole cd-project. Now I love these out of tune moments especially.
So, in the end, was it a piano concerto? Well, it was per definition because we called it that beforehand, but listening to the cd, I think the result is accordingly. The result isn't about being the loudest or anything, it still was about the usual musical things: timing your ideas, finding solutions and using the instruments at your disposal, with the good and the bad decisions, confronting, supporting, pushing, challenging each other. Almost a definition of normal life anyway. -- Cor Fuhler, Amsterdam, March 2002