London Sinfonietta — Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters

(NB. You might notice that in the current batch of album reviews I’m writing at the moment, the albums are getting progressively older. Yup, I’m just writing a bunch of reviews that I didn’t have time / energy to write at the time.)

Warp Works artwork At last, a CD of these concerts has been released. Warp Works is a collaboration between Warp Records and the London Sinfonietta designed to explore the links between the electronic music of the likes of Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and contemporary classical music, “in the belief that the different kinds of music shed light on each other.”

A lot is made of this supposed association between the two genres. A lot of the associations drawn are pretty tenuous. The claim that Richard D. James is the modern equivalent of Mozart seems particularly fanciful. But this CD successfully highlights the similarities between IDM and avant-garde twentieth century music without going too far up the bum.

The CD begins with a pair of prepared piano pieces by Aphex Twin. Although they are untitled on this CD, spotters will notice that these are performances of ‘Jynweythek’ and ‘Hy A Scullyas Lyf A Dhagrow’ from DrukQs. For these tracks, Richard D. James took inspiration from John Cage’s invention of the prepared piano. A piano is specially set up with chains, screws and whatever else the musician can think of. Each note makes an exotic sound. Playing the prepared piano is like having an exotic percussion ensemble.

Also included are specially arranged versions of classic tracks by Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Results are mixed. The tracks chosen for reinterpretation were surely not chosen for their accessibility or ease of translation. Indeed, the translation is positively uneasy. Maybe that was the point. Still, it is fascinating to hear ‘Afx237 V.7’ being played by an orchestra.

Undoubtedly the most successful reinterpretation is that of ‘Polygon Window’. It sounds like the London Sinfonietta had real fun playing this rip-roarer, and the audience clearly loved it as well.

Not all of these performances made it to the CD though. Notably absent is ‘Pete Standing Alone’, originally by Boards of Canada. Surely a recording must exist, because I’m sure I heard this on Radio 3 when they broadcast one of the concerts. Also missing is ‘Port Rhombus’, originally by Squarepusher.

With the reconfigurations of classic Warp tracks now making up just four of the tracks, the rest of the double CD is left for performances of pieces by avant-garde composers. This is where the listener is rewarded the most.

I had never heard of Conlon Nancarrow before, but I am now interested to learn more about his music. Nancarrow, just like today’s masters of electronic music, was interested in music that humans couldn’t possibly play. He used player pianos to achieve this. But ‘Study no. 7’ is presented here in an version for human players. It’s a complex but fun listen. My brother said that it sounded like cartoon music. I can see his point. It’s whimsical in that way. I would love to hear a piano-only version of this.

More familiar names appear on this CD aswell. Steve Reich’s ‘Violin Phase’ is a captivating listen. I would have liked more information on how this was performed. Only one player is listed, so I’m guessing the rest was done with electronics or tapes. Whatever, it’s a real treat to the ears.

Five of John Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano also make an appearance. Sonatas & Interludes is a favourite of mine, and it’s interesting to hear just how different these performances sound to the cheapo Naxos CD that I own. I guess it is all part of John Cage’s interest aleatoric music, that two performances of the same piece could sound so different. I could end up seeking out more versions of Sonatas & Interludes for this reason.

Meanwhile, Karlheinz Stockhausen is a famous composer that I’ve never had the inclination to investigate. At first, I found the piece included here, ‘Spiral’m a bore. But I have found repeated listens rewarding. This will spur me on to investigate further.

All-in-all, Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters is a very interesting album. It avoided being merely a gimmicky attempt to shoehorn electronic and classical music together. Instead, composers who did genuinely share ideas and approaches with today’s popular electronic music makers were deliberately chosen. The comparison between Mozart and Aphex is rubbish. But the similarities between Nancarrow and Squarepusher are fascinating.

There might be noticeable absences in the tracklisting, but you really cannot complain about what you are given here. This is a top selection of brilliantly performed avant-garde music. It will almost certainly encourage me to dip my toe in this arena further than just Reich and Cage.

1 comment

  1. Nice review 🙂
    I’m sure you’ve probably checked out Nancarrow and Stockhausen by now given that youre into this sort of music, but if not, Stockhausen’s stuff is generally worth getting into, especially the earlier works… I think you have to order his CDs directly from him (analord, anyone?) but theres a couple in the library which are pretty good if thats of any use. Nancarrows stuff is pretty hard to find, theres very few recordings of his piano works since theyre all fiendishly difficult (and were mostly written for player piano for that very reason..) Its pretty interesting though, maybe most famously he wrote canons in irregular proportions such as e:pi instead of the usual integer proportions used by most composers.
    ‘Violin Phase’ is generally played by a single violinist with tape, although sometimes a second violinist is used in addition to the tape, think it depends on the performance
    You should look out some Xenakis too, maybe not quite as ‘tuneful’ as Reich/Cage but I think you might find it interesting 🙂