Apartment House began their concert at Birmingham’s Vivid Projects with four short pieces, the composition dates of which ranged from the turn of the 13th century to the early years of the 21st. Amnon Wolman’s ‘Dead End’ featured little toy vehicles that moved autonomously and changed direction when they bumped into things, their alarms wailing while clarinettist Andrew Sparling picked out a meandering melody that, as the title suggested, went nowhere. A simple falling pattern was played at different speeds by violin, cello, and keyboard organ in Joseph Kurdika’s ’21st century music’, creating a pretty shifting collage that somehow failed to inspire. The most interesting thing about ‘Quid Tu Vides’ was its age, having been composed by early medieval polyphonist Pérotin the Great. And I must admit that Gavin Bryars’ ‘1, 2, 1-2-3-4’ was completely lost on me, the four musicians donning earphones and playing along to inaudible soundtracks that were nearly but deliberately not quite in sync. I got the impression that these kinds of jokes were funny, so long as you were a member of a certain club.
The final, much longer piece of the evening was Vitalija Glovackyte’s ‘We are for a while’, the outcome of her Sound and Music Embedded Composer residency with the ensemble. Glovackyte spent eighteen months working with Apartment House, developing an approach centred around the use of old electronics and junk scavenged from bins, skips, street corners, alleyways, and recycling centres. During the piece, the musicians would occasionally pull out a screwdriver, disassemble an old tape recorder or whatever was to hand, and wire selected components into different circuits to produce new soundmaking devices. Watching them do so reminded me, bizarrely, of the old Young Pioneer exercise of disassembling and reassembling a Kalashnikov, an account of which I recently read in a novel. Performers moved between seats where they played notated music and a workbench where they manipulated electrical components and other objects.
In addition to the four Apartment House members, Glovackyte herself mixed pre-recorded audio, mostly fuzzy and lo-fi electronics, and acted as a sort of conductor from the side of the stage. There were lush, powerful surges, dainty, clinking melodies, hummings and buzzings, and a remarkable solo on a custom 12-string instrument made from salvaged scrap, played sensitively by Aisha Orazbayeva. She, along with colleagues Sparling, Anton Lukoszevieze, and Kerry Yong, switched gamely between traditional and recycled instruments, even if the movements between the two stage areas sometimes felt a little laboured. Sometimes I thought the music was allowed to fall into a doldrums as a musician toiled away at rewiring an instrument; there were also moments when I wished that a particularly attractive combination of sounds had continued for longer, with less rushing from one sonic situation to the next. The piece is called ‘We are for a while’, after all.
Despite this, I was completely won over by the piece’s richly inventive timbres and harmonies, and by its often surprising twists and turns. Towards the end, as spinning cassette motors spun contact mics against violin strings and wooden boxes, a strange, nasally voice was heard singing a text by David Batho about a doll made from recycled scrap. It spoke of the moment when the reuse and recombination of materials opens up uncanny, unexpected possibilities, when something claims an objecthood seemingly by its own volition. ‘We are for a while’ combines an ambitious theatrical approach to performance with a keen ear for lovely and interesting sounds; on this basis, I look forward to hearing what Glovackyte does next.