After Arnold | Dr K Sextet12:12, 2nd April 2015
Six years after setting up shop, contemporary music group Dr K Sextet reckoned it was time to tackle Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. One thing led to another, as Antonia Couling reports
The doctor will see you now: Dr K Sextet at the Warehouse
When the players of contemporary music group Dr K Sextet decided in 2014 that it was about time to perform Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, ‘a coming of age work’ for them, as they describe it, an idea was sparked to mark the occasion by programming a series of events over the coming year using Lunaire as a central theme. Their multimedia plan involved visual arts as well as music commissions and a departure into cabaret.
The Pierrot Project was launched last October with the sextet (together with soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers) performing extracts from the Schoenberg piece, within an exhibition of artworks commissioned to respond to the three composite parts of Lunaire. Then, at the end of January, the group, again with soprano Rogers, performed perhaps the most ambitious element of the project – Pierrot Kabarett – a collection of new settings of the Brettl-Lieder which Schoenberg set in 1901 during his ‘pre-Schoenbergian’ stint, writing for the Überbrettl cabaret in Berlin.
This month, the project will focus on the middle section of the Pierrot story, with a concert of music programmed to reflect its more sombre mood. The link to Lunaire will not be obvious, in that no one is taking any elements from the story and adapting them, as Dr K conductor and composer Ewan Campbell explains: ‘The middle part of Pierrot [is] where Pierrot interacts with particularly catholic iconography and also the Turkish sword and, similarly, in this programme, Darren Bloom’s Eve is telling the story of Eve giving Adam the apple, and so dealing with judgment and the beginning of mortality set in a natural landscape, and my Ineunt [which will be performed together with its partner piece Exeunt] is, on the surface, about leaves flying off trees, but the leaves are compared to flags, hands and stars and the trees are variously judged on Christian and Islamic bases, so it’s a link of religious judgment and nature.’
These works will be juxtaposed with ‘reveries upon the eternal wonders of nature’ in pieces by Chou Wen-Chung, Joseph Schwantner and Aaron Holloway-Nahum.
I attended the January Pierrot Kabarett event, which took place at the Club Inégales in Euston – the perfect basement setting for an evening which very much evoked the informal, louche nature of the German cabaret scene from the earlier part of the 20th century. We were witness to eight world premieres – the culmination of the sextet’s composition competition, where eight composers set the eight poems that make up the Brettl-Lieder, in itself a world first, as the poems, although they have been re-orchestrated in the past, have never been reset in their entirety before.
As a group of works, from Liz Johnson’s witty Gigerlette, Dimitri Scarlato’s jaunty Nachtwandler, Norberto Oldrini’s marching, über-atmospheric, almost pastiche-cabaret Jedem das Seine, with a well-handled score full of dramatic lines and making full use of the instruments to hand, and the creaking cello innuendo and cat-like clarinet in James Whittle’s The undemanding Lover, to Andrew Thomas’ Einfälltiges Lied with its soundtrack of indistinct footsteps, and Neil Luck’s Galathea, with its use of spoken text and ‘sound effects’ from a toilet, and the live sampling in Jasmin Rodgman’s Langsamer Walzer (Emanuel Schikaneder’s poem Aus dem Spiegel von Arcadia), not to mention Amy Bryce’s Mahnung, performed with the soprano seated on an actual toilet, all performed by the excellently sparky Dr K Sextet and the full-throttle Lesley-Jane Rogers, it was extremely successful, with a balanced mix of acknowledgement to the cabaret style and completely new compositional imaginings, something that pleased Campbell.
‘The humour and risqué sexual content and whimsical pulse that is often a feature of cabaret is almost the reverse of a lot of the fashions in contemporary music,’ he says. ‘Several of the composers have university positions and we got some really quite established composers whose composition style is not cabaret! And this was an opportunity to step out of their normal composing style. Not to suddenly write a piece of musical theatre – I think we would have been disappointed if we had eight pieces of pure, quite unadulterated musical theatre – but I think they took it as a chance to imitate and manipulate, but not straight copying, not pastiche.’
Advertising the international competition on sites like compositiontoday.com, soundandmusic.org and composerssite.com, entrants were asked to choose a first and second choice of poems to set and to submit a proposal of how they would treat them. Their portfolios were also taken into consideration. The instrumentation was left to the composers’ discretion – which could have potentially excluded any number of musicians from the group for the whole cycle, but luckily that didn’t happen: ‘It was interesting that the flute was in about half and the clarinet was in all and was most popular. The cello was second most popular and percussion was also popular. We also offered electronics, which they had to produce themselves.’
The next element of the Pierrot Project will be to ask 21 composers each to write a response to Pierrot Lunaire, by setting either in French, German or English the 21 poems that Schoenberg set using the same instrumentation as the pieces. Three of these works were premiered at the October 2014 launch of the project. The remainder will be commissioned once the sextet’s drive for patrons and further funding has been secured, (their current sponsorships will only run until this month’s event), something that I hope they will manage, as the journey that the group set out on last October has been accompanied by an enthusiastic (and largely new) audience.
‘At the end of the last two events many people said “See you at the next one”, something I have never seen before, ever, at a contemporary classical concert,’ says Campbell. ‘I think so often in contemporary music, you are running things from concert to concert and you can’t build a portfolio of events where you can advertise your next event at your last event and where people feel that they are part of a growing project. So it is working and we obviously want to build more on that and hope that people will become increasingly invested in what we’re doing.’