Review: Final Two Nights of the London Contemporary Music Festival

Kit Downes and Tom Challenger at the London Contemporary Music Festival
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

London Contemporary Music Festival Final Two Nights
(Second Home. Shoreditch. 31 May – 1 June. Review by Rob Edgar. Drawings by Geoffrey Winston)

The final two nights of the London Contemporary Music Festival at Second Home, a former carpet warehouse near Brick Lane, featured an astonishing array of diverse music and art (from Japanese Noh, to Domenico Scarlatti sonatas, and Conlon Nancarrow).

Fitting then that such an ambitious festival should feature one of the most ambitious duos on the London jazz scene today: Kit Downes and Tom Challenger's Wedding Music for organ and saxophone opened the 31st (the night was subtitled Synth – Organ – Machine). It is exciting stuff that clearly takes its cue from composers such as Messiaen but, where Messiaen's music seeks to contemplate the transcendental, Downes and Challenger appear to be reacting to what they see around them. There were moments when deep snarls from the organ resonated around the room, the music is based on little kernels of thematic material which are in continuous development. Most striking of the set was the finale - Restart - towards the middle, over the top of Downes' growling and distorted organ, Challenger interjected with a naïve, simple melody over the top.

Aisha Orazbayeva at the London Contemporary Music Festival
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved

Peter Zinovieff's OUR TOO (a concerto for violin and computer) was premièred (with Aisha Orazbayeva on fiddle). It was a striking piece of music which pitted the violinist and the electronics against each other, each struggling for dominance (although the computer seemed to win!). It had a cyclical form; with thuds and crashes constantly interrupting Aisha's flow. The oddly English Baroque sounding snatches which occasionally appeared were especially captivating as they were paired with some extreme dissonances.

Conlon Nancarrow's studies for player piano on a real pianola were a highlight. Nancarrow takes the listener to an unusual place. Human agency and freedom of choice have been consciously removed, so  the listener seeking connection could be left cold. The pieces are famously complex but often the complexity is superficial: often they are based on simple and diatonic phrases but their position in the bar is played with creating a kind of prelude to the minimalism of Steve Reich. The audience reaction was enthusiastic, but left questions open: whom were we applauding? The piano? The composer? The music? Would we have had the same positive reaction had we been listening to a CD player placed on the stage? How much of a difference is there?

The last night of LCMF focused on Italian Colourism: the piano sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti formed a central bedrock around a set of modernist pieces by contemporary Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. Scarlatti's sonatas are remarkable in the way they modulate to far off areas, and there is a real sense of thematic unity. Sciarrino's quartets numbers seven and nine (UK premières) were more concerned with timbral exploration, the teasing out of new methods of composition was the connecting link between the two composers separated by time.

The Pièce de résistance was Pistoletto's Ten Less One where all the ten mirrors bar one - which had until then adorned the walls of the stage – were destroyed with a large mallet. Although it's not a particularly imaginative piece of work, it certainly got the biggest audience reaction. What does that say about us as people? The sensationalism of wanton, quick destruction can whip up a contemporary music audience into a frenzy, whereas crystal-clear, slowly and artfully constructed pieces of music seemed to leave the same audience slightly more underwhelmed. Now there's food for thought....

Read Geoff Winston's review of the Japanese Extreme evening at the LCMF HERE


  1. I would like to disagree with your last comment: "...whereas crystal-clear, slowly and artfully constructed pieces of music seemed to leave the same audience slightly more underwhelmed. "

    I was there for the whole week and the audience gave great responses to the majority of pieces regardless of complexity.

    A great festival overall. As everyone keeps saying why did it take so long for London to host something like this regularly.

  2. Dear Rajen,

    Many thanks for your comment.

    My point was not that the audience reacted poorly to the other pieces (although I can only comment for the two nights I was there) – and I certainly didn't wish to suggest that complexity is the apogee of quality. I'm sorry if my point wasn't sufficiently clear, I'll explain in more detail here:

    When a composer creates a piece of music he/she creates it out of nothing. In most cases, material has to be thought about in the abstract by the composer and then committed to paper (or some other medium) and then performed. In every step, human beings are involved in a process of construction or creation.

    My aim was not to malign the audience's taste or intelligence, but to point out that Ten Less One is the opposite, its entire point is the destruction of something which took care and skill to construct. It intrigued me that people seemed to become more excited at the prospect of destruction - which takes no skill – than construction, which takes time and effort. I'm not saying it was necessarily a bad thing, it just illustrated that – as people – we seem to take a kind of pleasure (that we might not like to admit to) in mischief.

    All the very best,


  3. Hi Rob

    Creation is harder than destruction; in work or in art.
    Your philosophy is valid and when put in the context you have written,makes sense.

    I am also glad you were beat the guardian to publishing a review of the festival.