A pianist drums a rhythm with his fingers on the side of the piano stool. At first he appears to be simply warming up his hands, but the rhythm is insistent and repetitive. His fingers move up to the fall board of the piano, still drumming. His hand reaches around to the flank of the instrument, edging towards the gold Steinway logo. He stands and moves around the curved body of the instrument, still drumming drumming drumming…. Suddenly a red balloon flies out of the belly of the piano, twirling into the air with a comical farting noise…..

Another pianist curls over a tiny toy piano, picking out a quirky tune which, on that instrument, sounds like many carriage clocks chiming…..

A flautist yells at the end of a piece which requires overblowing, triple tonguing and other complex techniques

Welcome to the world of composer and pianist Stephen Montague.

Steve at Barbican/G Crumb 2011

In celebration of Stephen’s 75th birthday St John’s Smith Square played host to 24 hours of music making, beginning at lunchtime on Friday 9 March: 5 concerts during the day and evening followed by a performance of Satie’s bizarre Vexations – 840 repetitions (c15 hours of music) of a curious little two-line piece, played by a tag-team of pianists in hourly slots. In the crypt below a video wall (set up by film maker Rob Munday and Royal College of Arts students) showed a new film by Kumi Oda (a biography of Stephen Montague) along with short films by Alex Julyan, Rob Munday and others which ran throughout the day and into the long night.

The daytime and evening concerts featured works written over the course of 40 years, including some new commissions/premieres, and demonstrated the quantity, breadth, variety and richness of Stephen’s work. This is the man who had breakfast with Aaron Copland as a student and who spent 15 years working with maverick composer John Cage; who has lived in the UK since 1974 but who still retains very strong ties to his American homeland, not least through his music. He’s a composer with a keen imagination, sharp wit and a healthy sense of humour, who, in his own words, has lived his life “looking forward”, and who shows no sign of stopping now that he has reached his three score years and 15.

Stephen’s connections to the country of his birth were revealed most strongly in the first concert of the day, ‘After Ives….and Beyond’. One of the most significant influences on Stephen is the American composer Charles Ives, and in the 1pm concert pianists Mikaela Livadiotis, Yaoying Wang, Jiarui Li, Christina McMaster and Lewis Kingsley Peart performed a programme of works which paid a direct homage to Ives in the use of folksongs, hymns and spirituals, marches, jazz, boogie-woogie and the mechanised sounds of the 20th century, together with Ivesian tone clusters and musical collisions, strummed and plucked effects inside the piano, and the drumming on the piano case. These effects – and the later performance by flautist Rebecca Griffiths of Vlug (Speed) which uses extended techniques and overblowing – demonstrate, in my view, Stephen’s fascination with sound. Now that may seem a daft thing to say of a composer, whose business is to create sounds, but Stephen is a composer who likes to push the capabilities of the instrument to it limits to create deep dark rumblings in the bass of the piano, or ethereal strummed murmurs from its innards, proving that striking the keys needn’t be the only way to “play” a piano. Chords and collections of notes are used for their colour and timbre rather than strict harmonic progression, and theatrics, surprise, chance and silence are also important elements. These things connect him closely to John Cage, who beleived that “all sound is music”.

The piano works in this segment combined Lisztian virtuosity in tumultuous passages with moments of repose, delicate far-away melodies and fragments of hymn tunes. The concert closed with After Ives (1993) which ends with an outrageously rambunctious and “perverse homage” to J P Sousa, whom Ives apparently detested, quoting his famous The Stars and Stripes Forever on the piano with Chopinesque melodic interjections and Lisztian extravagance, all masterfully and very wittily handled by Lewis Kingsley Peart.

In the second concert, Beguiled, Stephen paid homage to another of his musical heroes, Henry Cowell (1897-1965), a composer who liked to “live in the whole world of music” – an ethos to which I suspect Stephen also subscribes! This concert had an altogether more reflective, meditative atmosphere, showcasing works which draw on Japanese and Indian musical aesthetics, Blues, loops and phasing, and graphic scores. Highlights of the programme were Haiku, (which, according to the composer’s introduction, started out as a very short work (like Haiku) and became a long one): beautifully and sensitively performed from memory by Chi-Ling Lok, it was haunting, dreamy and ethereal, while the accompanying electronics lent a rather more unsettled backdrop to the work; Nun Mull, ‘Tears’ (2014) written in memoriam the Korean ferry disaster, commissioned and performed by Jenna Sung, who brought a plaintive tragic intensity to the work;  Raga Capriccio (2017), a kooky work for toy piano and tape, inspired by Indian music, commissioned and performed by Helen Anahita Wilson, which sounded like many clocks chiming and the delicate the “ting” of prayer bells; and Eine Kleine Klangfarben Gigue, in which the opening measures of the Gigue from Bach’s First Keyboard Partita provide a ground bass over which other instrumentalists (in this instance The Ling Ensemble – two recorders, violin and bass clarinet) gradually winkle out hidden melodies. It was played with a wonderful sense of humour and spontaneity, the musicians leaving the stage one by one as the piece drew to a close.

A quick glass of wine in the interval and back to the hall for the 4pm concert which was concerned with matters of life and death. Dark Train Coming (2001) was written for harpsichordist Jane Chapman and is the composer’s response to serious cardiac surgery following a doctor’s warning that he could be headed for the “Dark Train into the ether”. The work has a frenetic, filmic quality, with passages in the first movement reminiscent of the soundtrack to a silent film where the heroine is tied to a train track. In the second movement, we hear Baroque arabesques gone mad, while in the third the player taps out a rhythm on the case of the instrument before striking notes which have the exact electronic timbre and insistency of a hospital heart monitor. The finale was a simple melody in the upper treble accompanied by a music box playing Brahms’ famous lullaby, which suggested the hallucinatory landscape of anaesthesia and coming to from a deep sleep.

The middle works in the programme – Folk Dances (2002) performed by Ian Pace (piano) and Madeleine Mitchell (violin) and Mira, performed by pianist Roxanna Shini – were rather more upbeat. The first work was infused with idioms drawn from folk music, jazz and Blues, the second an exercise in using only the white notes of the piano with forearm clusters to create a work of expressive warmth. The programme closed with a magnificently portentous and apocalyptic organ work, Behold a Pale Horse (1990), inspired by the Book of Revelation (“Not exactly a happy birthday message but ya gotta have a sense of humour!”).

The final concert of the afternoon showcased talented young people performing works from Stephen’s collections Five Easy Pieces and Autumn Leaves, together with the world premiere of Hound Dog Blues for piano duo. In his introduction, Stephen explained that he has always found inspiration and nourishment from working with children and young people, and this charming short concert celebrated the new generation. Stephen even performed some of the music himself which lent a lovely sense of shared experience to the concert.

Fortified by more wine and supper, we returned to St John’s Smith Square for the evening concert which brought together other instrumentalists, pianists and the Fulham Symphony Orchestra, who between them performed three concertos, a short ensemble work called Dead Cat Bounce (2014) with lively animations on the columns of SJSS by Royal College of Art students, and a humorous piece Texas Pulp Fiction which was an ode to the composer’s travels through Texas on a Greyhound bus.

Ritual Ode to Changwan (2017) received its premiere at the concert. Performed by pianist Jenna Sung and the Project Instrumental ensemble, it is a theatrical work based on a popular South Korean folk song realised by prepared piano and string orchestra. Once again, we experienced the extraordinary sonic worlds a grand piano can produce when the pianist barely strikes a single note. It was a concentrated and highly arresting work in which the piano took centre stage, though not in the conventional sense of a classical piano concerto, but rather as a piece of performance art, and which finished with Jenna leaving a trail of tiny roses as she glided gracefully off the stage.

Disparate Dances showcased Nancy Ruffer (flute) and Oliver Wass (harp) in a three-movement work inspired by Eastern European, Japanese and Irish dance forms, with a wonderful foot-tapping, exuberant finale.

The final work of the evening was Stephen’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1997). Scored in the traditional arrangement of soloist and orchestra and in three movements, it employs experimental elements favoured by Ives and Cowell, including fist and forearm clusters, and great walls of sound from the piano. The work draws on American vernacular music, folksongs and Civil War battle songs, and is an epic confluence of the composer’s American roots, viewed from the perspective of having lived away from the US for over 40 years. An intense, energetic and highly-charged work, it was performed with great gusto, vigour and elan by Rolf Hind.

Although the formal concerts finished at 9.45pm, the music was not over, and the performance of Satie’s Vexations, which had commenced at 9pm on an upright piano the crypt bar, continued upstairs as Norman Jacobs (New Music Brighton) appeared in the lift, playing the work on Helen Wilson’s toy piano. The music was then “transferred” to the upright piano and thence to the Steinway D for the overnight performance. Space was cleared in the hall for people to chill out or bed down for the night……. The all night count of repetitions was cleverly made visible by the RCA students’ real-time animation of expanding tree rings elegantly projected on the high walls and ceiling.

The whole event was a wonderfully vibrant and exhilarating showcase of Stephen Montague’s impressive compositional output, and the cheerful presence of the composer throughout the day – introducing the works, chatting to the audience – created a relaxed, informal atmosphere: this was very much music for friends, with friends and amongst friends.

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Birthday cakes for Stephen Montague in the crypt bar at St John’s Smith Square

This week I attended my very first ‘happening’ at the somewhat unlikely venue of London’s St John’s Smith Square to celebrate the 70th birthday of American-British composer Stephen Montague. A ‘happening’ is generally defined as a spontaneous event where musicians and performers come together, and usually involves audience participation. The friend who joined me at the St John’s event has been to many happenings (at music festivals such as Supernormal) and was able to confirm after the event that it was indeed a “proper” happening. We retired to a greasy spoon caff off Horseferry Road, where, over mugs of steaming, brick-red tea and egg and chips, we discussed the event, which moved into a wider discussion about what makes a concert or performance.

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‘A Dinner Party for John Cage’ at St John’s Smith Square

What I loved about the Stephen Montague event was its sense of spontaneity, how it began without fanfare or announcement (no applause for conductor, leader of the orchestra, etc, for there were none), and seemed to evolve over the space of around 50 minutes (in fact, a very clearly defined time-frame). It was as interesting watching the audience’s reaction as it was observing the performers (singers, string players, three pianists and an organist). There was the sense of several things going on at once, working on several layers and in different time frames, and yet at times, the seemingly disparate groups of musicians and performers came together to form a cohesive whole. The seating was arranged randomly; the audience was integral to the performance, and we were invited to wander around the space and actively participate.

Was it a concert? I thought so, because there was most definitely an audience and performers, and music, and these elements must co-exist to create that perfect circle (music-performer-audience) that is a concert.

The formal concert as we know it today, with all its etiquette and particular modes of behaviour – sitting in silence, knowing when to applaud, dressing up etc – did not really come into existence until the nineteenth century. Before that time people enjoyed music in many different settings, and performances were often a sideline or accompaniment to some other event such as a royal audience, religious ceremony, or banquet. In many ways, the Stephen Montague happening harked back to that earlier time, before we all got so het up about how we should behave at concerts. It was a liberating and instructive experience.

Read my Bachtrack review of A Birthday Happening for Stephen Montague

Supernormal Festival trailer, made by my concert companion, Andy Moore, of Little Matey Productions