Thursday, 11 November 2010

Street Sounds in the City of Music: HK Gruber

The latest work from HK Gruber, the Austrian composer from whom the word "enthusiastic" is never far away, received its French premiere under the composer's baton at the Cité de la Musique, in Paris last night.

Wedged awkwardly between Kurt Weill's majestic Berliner Requiem, and Vom Tod im Wald (itself, formerly part of The Berliner Requiem), like a bicycle caught between two steam locomotives; the trumpet concerto, entitled 'Busking', got off to a rather rickety start. It's first section careening about a jaunty little melody, trying to squeeze as many blunt changes of tone colour as possible into as short a time as possible by the simple expedient of multiple mute swapping. But then, after this hectic and even rather daft beginning, which seemed at times like little more than a raspberry blown truculently in the face; a moment of repose.

It came so suddenly that it was more of a shock than any loud blast could have been. Like a sudden gust of cool air, a moment of near silence. A few plaintive notes plucked from a banjo over a deep low string drone, finally joined by very high harmonics from the first violin. After a while, the trumpet re-enters but without its former bluster, now bruised and crepuscular. The effect is cinema - recalling Angelo Badalamenti's music for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, or Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for Marco Ferreri's Harem.

Gruber is probably the most prominent member of what became known, in the 1960s, as the Third Viennese School, a kind of playful, postmodern riposte to the rigour of Schoenberg and his students. Dubbed 'clowns' by the people he in turn derides as the "dictators of Darmstadt," Gruber has never been afraid to live up to the insult, whether scoring for children's toys and swannee whistle, quoting Johannes Strauss, or appending multiple exclamation marks (how very modern) to the title of his most famous music theatre work, Frankenstein!!!

'Busking' delivers all the seductive pleasures of tonal music without its queasy predictability, and still finds time to be just as caustic as Gruber's early twentieth century countrymen. More so, in a way, as those fleeting moments of strychnine are surrounded by sweet spots. But nothing in the piece is quite as beautiful as that deep breath it takes after the opening section. And though Gruber may have inherited Weill's taste for the cabaret and the carnival-esque, he ultimately lacks his hero's bite and his commitment. So the potency of cheap music is here used less to incite than to amuse.