The Fairly Relentless Fitkins
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
The wry title composer Graham Fitkin gave to a programme he curated for himself, his partner Ruth Wall, and pianists Clare Hammond and Kathryn Stott to perform barely hinted at the diverse music within, although it did nod to the fact that some of his own music – which made up around half of it – dated from 30 years ago.
Those early pieces dictated the line-up: eight hands on two pianos. From my excellently positioned seat in the Stevenson Hall, I could often watch six of them at once, and it was mesmerising. Dating from his time studying with Louis Andriessen and sharing much of that influence with the music of Steve Martland, Sciosophy and Untitled 11 are propulsive, funky pieces with rhythmic roots in stride as much as Western classical music.
While the opening bar of the former was counted in by the composer, the Morton Feldman piece that he and Wall played after those is rather music that is counted out, the pedals on the Steinways pressed into service after being irrelevant for his own works.
Hammond and Stott each contributed complementary solos to the evening, Stott opening the second half with John Adams’s China Gates, probably the prettiest music in the recital, and Anna Meredith’s Camberwell Green, a long way from the Mendelssohn that was the reason for its commission, but appropriately close to the sound-world of Fitkin’s catalogue.
That is also true of the music of George Walker, an African American who died in 2018 and whose music evidently needs re-discovering as much as that of William Grant Still, Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Florence Price. Hammond followed his vibrant exploratory piano writing with three of the Piano Etudes by Unsuk Chin, virtuoso lightning-fingered stuff.
Fitkin and Wall began Steve Reich’s Clapping Music before the applause for that had died away, in another of the thoughtfully sequenced details of the recital. Less of a party piece than it can often be, here it set up Fitkin’s own I Swear, I Swear, I Swear later on, which adds dialogue to body percussion, inspired by snatches of conversation overheard on a plane.
The other Fitkin piano works, the changing-pace exercise of Flak, and Totti, a tuneful and architectural tribute to the Italian footballer’s club loyalty particularly apt at a time when the “beautiful game” looks very fickle indeed, set up the closing work, Bla Bla Bla, which premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival.
With Hammond and Stott at the concert grands, Fitkin and Wall played lap-tops and sampling and sequencing keyboards, with the composer narrating on a microphone headset in what was a work of impressive technical complexity as well as profound conceptual depth.
The nod to Greta Thunberg in the title was only one of many voices alongside the composer’s own, applying the ecological idea of Shifting Baseline Syndrome to the political and media environment as well as recognising its musical reference. Another (likely younger) reviewer heard echoes of the Pet Shop Boys in June, but I was reminded of the ground-breaking collages on Robert Fripp’s 1979 album, Exposure. Even the exacting Fripp would probably never have attempted to execute this music live, however. It was exhilarating.