Tuesday, August 31, 2010

orbiting schoenberg

Sunday, August 29
Austrian Cultural Forum

Argento Chamber Ensemble
Michael Galante, conductor

Heinz Holliger, Eisenblumen
Phillipp Blume, S, M, L, XL
Ives, Movement 1 from String Quartet No. 1
Eric Lyon, Sacred Amnesia
Strauss, Metamorphosen
Schoenberg, fragments

The thirty-person audience at Sunday's Argento Ensemble concert was clearly one of connoisseurs. There was the man in the Schoenberg t-shirt reading Style and Idea, the teenager with a book on conducting, and a smattering of other aficionados (and, weirdly enough, a crying baby). I couldn't imagine a better setting to hear this bizarre variety of works, which conductor Michael Galanate grouped under the auspices of a preview concert for the ensemble's Pierrot-centered fall season.

Almost all the music bore some relation to that grand saga of the Austro-German musical lineage, to which Arnold Schoenberg proclaimed himself heir and prophet. With Schoenberg's ghost hovering over the proceedings, it wasn't too much of a stretch to see the connections between the founder of the Second Viennese School and the various works the ensemble performed.

Holliger's Eisblumen plays out a Bach chorale at a glacial pace so that each individual harmony becomes a prism of instrumental colors and effects. The celestial sound of detuned string septet, with each instrument hovering over the wisps of Bach's notes, produced a kind of skeleton chorale. Like Schoenberg in his neo-Baroque works, Holliger creates a dialogue with the past, with antique harmonies gradually coming in and out of focus, updated with extended, icy string techniques.

In the cleverly-titled S, M, L, XL, Phillipp Blume employs a hyper-modern string techniques worthy of Lachenmann in dense layers of polyphony. Individual gestures--a thudding bass slap, a whiplash pizzicato--form an immediate sense of foreground and background, with motives trickling in and out of the opaque fabric. In the end, the music coalesces into something rather pretty: tiny glimmers of tonality float to the surface. These quasi-tonal utterances allowed for a pleasant transition to the first movement from Ives' first quartet, a soulful fugue which has more in common with Dvorak than Schoenberg. Biting dissonances occasionally crop up (Ives wouldn't have it any other way), but the work is mostly genial, and very out-of-place in a series exploring Pierrot Lunaire. That said, the four members of Argento played it with a round and polished sound, fully embracing the radiant ending.

In his 2001 tape experiment Sacred Amnesia, Eric Lyon juxtaposes Wagner and Sousa in a socio-musical commentary which falls flat. Lyon subjects a heated passage from Act II of Parsifal (in which Parsifal cries "Amfortas! Die Wunde!" after kissing Kundry) to a haze of electronic effects, filtered into a weird, half-comprehensible mush; it feels silly, especially when immediately followed by an excerpt from The Stars and Stripes Forever. Lyon's own program notes mis-identify the Wagner as "the opening passage from Parsifal," and it doesn't really feel like he has a solid grasp on the materials he's quoting---pastiche without purpose. The few nice moments, like a held, glowing note and an intriguing metallic buzz, are overwhelmed by the silliness of an auto-tuned Pierrot quote and a Speak & Spell voice describing his income. Lyon would have been better off working with the abstract waves of sound he seems comfortable in rather than mis-representing Schoenberg, Wagner, and Sousa.

In his program notes, Galante makes sure to put down the famous Strauss-was-a-revolutionary Schoenberg quotation, but Metamorphosen is not the work of a revolutionary. It is the art of a man resigned to bid farewell to a half-century of German culture and horror, a man who often overlooked the horror in favor of the culture. It is an epitaph to the idea that great art breeds great people, proven desperately wrong in the twelve years of Nazi Germany. Metamorphosen sags with the weight of solace sought but not found. Strauss looks back to the Beethoven of the Eroica Symphony for his mourning: the entombed hero is not Napoleon, but Germany itself.

The seven-string version of Metamorphosen allows for a greater sense for Strauss's intricate counterpoint as well as a greater freedom for the performers. String unisons become solos, like the richly-hued, weeping cello melody of the funeral march. With twenty-three or seven players, the piece moves like molasses, each moment heartwrenching and inevitable. The strings scale immense heights, stirring up throes of passion which echo the intensity of the Act II love-duet in Tristan. The music comes to a sudden, groaning stop, returning to painful slowness of the funeral rites. Strauss recalls the end of Beethoven's Fifth with the incessant final chords, but they are hollow instead of triumphant: a Doctor Faustus-esque inversion of heroic victory. Argento produced a lush, fleecy sound with incredible intonation; I'm not sure how necessary a conductor was, but Galante gave it a worthy interpretation.

And, finally, Schoenberg. The two string septet fragments, from very disparate parts of his career, were definitely worth hearing. The untitled septet from 1918 evokes the Chamber Symphony, saturated with hard-edged, angular polyphony. Toter Winkel (1899) is like an outtake from Verklarte Nacht, haunting though brief.

Argento's fall season is really remarkable, with a ton of great Austrian modernism you won't get anywhere else in New York. I'm looking forward to Thursday's Haas concert, which I will hopefully review if I have time before heading off to Berlin on Sunday.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

quote of the day

"These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationary store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like 'the Cleveland Chicken,' sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are."
-John Cheever, preface to The Stories of John Cheever

Monday, August 23, 2010

one bit, two bit, red bit, blue bit

In the past couple years, we have seen a wealth of full-length albums from the newest generation of composers. Since , we have Corey Dargel's Someone Will Take Care Of Me, Timothy Andres' Shy and Mighty, Nico Muly's two upcoming albums, Ted Hearne's Katrina Ballads, and Tristan Perich's 1-Bit Symphony. Besides Nico, these are all names that have made waves in the classical world only relatively recently, and the increasing media devotion and intrigue into these new projects has given an almost disproportionate (but well-deserved) attention to a set of composers who haven't quite hit thirty.

The solo, studio-produced album has become the primary musical statement of this generation. It's really more important than any New York Philharmonic commission, Boosey & Hawks publication, or foundation grant. Shy and Mighty made more of a splash upon its release than any performance Timothy Andres has received. And now Tristan Perich, loosely affiliated with the Bang on a Can scene but closer to the video-game music crowd than the postminimalist bunch, has made it into the classical world with his release of an album containing a symphony.

Remember what I was saying a couple weeks ago about symphonies? Well Perich's 1-Bit Symphony, though seemingly defying all cliched notions of the form (it's for electronics? it's not on an actual album? the first movement isn't sonata allegro form and the last movement isn't a rondo?), actually fits nicely within the overall mold of the genre. It's dramatic, multi-part, with a sense of arching narrative. In short, it's what you'd expect a symphony to sound like, albeit with a completely different actual sound than you're used to.

Friday's CD release party at Roulette was built around Perich's symphony but also included a solid hour-plus of other fairly entertaining music. An ad-hoc group of four violinists (Andie Springer, Joshua Modney, Pauline Kim Harris, Conrad Harris) performed Reich's 1967 Violin Phase, one of his pioneering attempts to transfer the tape phasing process to live acoustics. The dense polyphony and complex interactions of the four violins evokes the loops of Come Out and It's Gonna Rain, but fragments of wistful melody and lyrical unison passages make a departure from those earlier works. My only complaint is that the violinists seemed unnecessarily mic-ed, adding an unfortunate bit of reverb to the texture.

Michael Gordon's XY followed, in a shockingly virtuosic rendition by percussionist Doug Perkins. It creates an gradual sense of tension and release through quick crescendos and decrescendos reminiscent of the "breathing"effects in Music for 18 Musicians. The steady stream of eighth notes is an economy of means over which Gordon plays with a few different timbres and pitches, limiting himself to only five tuned drums. I wish that there was more diversity in the piece itself; the length of the work seemed to outlast the ideas within it.

Shawn Greenlee's set of live electronics was immensely unenjoyable. His manipulations of his laptop provided an echt-electronic sound, with trite ear-cleansing screeches and thunderous (but unexciting) roars. It felt like an audio equivalent to TV static, similar to John Zorn in its sense of free improvisation--I'm not sure how much of it was structured ahead of time, but if it was, it was not audible. I'm all for barrages of sound which assault the ears, but there didn't really seem to be anything creative or expressive about Greenlee's composition, besides the overall sense that he was angry about something. It would have made an adequate accompaniment to an abrasive experimental film, but without programmatic content I couldn't find much on which to grasp.

In two movements excerpted from Glitch, Daniel Wohl's work for string quartet and electronics, a group of freelancers (Modney and Springer from Violin Phase, joined by Victor Lowrie and Rose Bellini) capturing Wohl's careful balance of acoustic and electronic with impeccable blend. The strings slide around with tiny glissandos over the electronics' regular pulse; melodic snippets slowly coalesce into a drone, followed by an explosion of Xenakis-like effects. It ends brightly ecstatic, with each instrument shivering to form a radiant, un-inflected major key, supported by shimmering electronics.

The four works formed a compelling preparation for the main show, the 1-Bit Symphony. From the first notes, Perich presents a teeming landscape, creating an immediate sense of hyper-charged narrative scope. The shifting patterns of six small TVs mimic the '80s graphics of 8-bit Nintendo games, pure patterns which also reminded me of the twisted abstractions of Islamic art. The music courses with energy, somehow scrolling in tandem with the video, heavily layered but completely transparent. Waves of sound give off the inexorable sense of rhythmic motion and harmonic stasis which form the contradictory principles of musical minimalism. One of Perich's favorite transition mechanisms resembles the skipping of a scratched CD, a hiccuping effect which slows us down before launching us into the next large section: the momentum is infectious.

Broad themes emerge, and I was reminded of the blocks of sound in Bruckner's symphonies, which play out a small number of musical materials over the course of twenty- or thirty-minute movements. Instead of formally distinguished movements, though, Perich's symphony contains individual sections which seem more like levels of a videogame. In the classics of the NES days (the first three Super Mario Bros. in particular), one is presented at the beginning of each level with a set, unified thematic, aesthetic, and (if you have the sound on) musical style--nothing changes until you move on to the next level. It is the same way with 1-Bit Symphony; each section stays within a specific framework, whether that be antiphonal beeps or techno grooves, and works its ideas to their natural conclusions. At the same time, the accumulation of structures creates a grandiosity worthy of John Adams.

A sudden reboot of sorts sets up the final section, which begins with a descending corkscrew coming from the right speaker in a kind of basso lamento. The lament transforms from the plaintive to the danceable, chaconne-esque in its merging of upbeat and somber. Then a jubilant melody enters, a pulsating wall of sound, and the solemn backdrop gives way. On the album, the listener controls when the final major chord finishes--the music, in a sense, becomes a sound installation. At Roulette, Perich held it for a glimmering five minutes, and then beat the game.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

quote of the day

"Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great is rugged and negligent;...beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and even gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure."
-Edmund Burke

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

many voices (2)

Monday, August 16 2010
Lincoln Center Presents Mostly Mozart: Bach & Polyphonies

International Contemporary Ensemble
Ludovic Morlot, conductor
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, keyboards

Purcell (trans. Benjamin), Fantasia VII
George Benjamin, Antara
Harrison Birtwistle, Selections from
Bach Measures
Birtwistle, Slow Frieze
Bach (arr. Berio), Contrapunctus XIX, from The Art of Fugue
Lachenmann, Mouvement (--vor der Erstarrung)

For a program this ambitious and audacious to exist under the auspices of the Mostly Mozart festival is truly remarkable. This summer, Lincoln Center has seen the fruitful results of a gradual and important transformation and updating of its festival repertoire, from the sensational Varese fest to electronic gamelan to Aimard's polyglot of polyphony.

At Monday's concert, we heard not a single work of Mozart's, but also not even really a single work of Bach's: both of the "Bach" pieces were in fact re-compositions of the master's music through the lens of post-war modernism, demonstrating more about Luciano Berio's and Harrison Birtwistle's styles than those of the Baroque polyphonist (and the same goes for George Benjamin's Purcell "transcription"). Rather than illuminate Bach, the three-day festival has accomplished the more intriguing goal of shedding light on what other people think about Bach (Aimard himself included). Bach's music serves as a vehicle for other composers' and performers' ideas, a kind of blank slate upon which they can inscribe their musical agendas.

Benjamin, in his version of Purcell's two-part Fantasia VII (originally written for viol consort), uses timbre to emphasize the unfolding of eerie counterpoint. Scored for the odd ensemble of cello, violin, celeste, and clarinet, the soft arrangement feels almost frozen in time, with the glassy colors of the plinking celeste setting the framework. The other instruments bring out various lines in the keyboard part, weaving around Aimard's crystalline playing; Benjamin crafts each moment with care, doing justice to Purcell's technical brilliance.

The rest of the first half of the program left me mostly cold. Antara is one of the first pieces of music I have heard in a long time that feels like a complete cop-out. Apparently drawn to the acoustics of the pan-pipe, Benjamin decided he wanted to write a concerto for the instrument. But rather than deal with the difficulties of composing complex, atonal music for such a limited range, Benjamin stepped around the issue: the pan pipe is played by electric keyboard, which is, to quote the program notes, "unconstrained by the limits of normal human performance."

Now I am not one of those people who yammers on about how using electronics somehow remove the human aspect of the music. Composers are free to do what they want, and there will always be a human aspect to music, even if it's randomly generated by software designed by a robot. Benjamin's idea, though, strikes me as inherently flawed and somewhat disingenuous, a retreat from the hardships of writing for an instrument that doesn't do everything that you want it to. I'm not sure exactly what his solution should have been in this case, but it definitely could have been subtler than keyboard sampling pan pipe.

Now, the actual piece was moderately interesting. An ensemble of two flutes, two trombones, two keyboards, strings, and electronics played various hockets which shot across the theater, creating agitated clangor. Overall, though, the work dragged on too long (twenty minutes), losing most of its momentum by the end. Aimard played the quasi- New Age, quasi- serial keyboard part with conviction, almost convincing me that it was a good idea to begin with, and Ludovic Morlot conducted with urgency.

Things didn't particularly improve in two mediocre selections from Birtwistle's Bach Measures, a set of chorale prelude orchestrations. The first, strangely ornamented and highlighting flute and clarinet soloists (Claire Chase and another member of ICE, uncharacteristically subdued) was courtly and dull; the second, buoyant but uninspiring. They felt more like exercises (and not particularly good ones) than actual pieces; I would rather have heard a Bach arrangement classic like Webern's "Ricercar a 6" from The Musical Offering.

In Slow Frieze, Birtwistle sets up a series of spatial arrangements between small groups of instruments, scattered through the Rose Theater. Various rhythmic layers propel the music forward, but it was difficult to grasp onto anything; briefly, the ensemble snapped into a tight groove, but that quickly dissolved. Incessant motives continuously return, with fierce drums and twitching violins, but the individual ideas didn't add up to a compelling narrative. Jacob Greenberg, ICE's virtuoso pianist, stole the show by playing the cluttered chords like they were written by Liszt, bombastic and arch-romantic.

Fortunately, the second half of the evening brought together two fantastic works. Berio stands with Webern as a successful recomposer of Bach's music, and his orchestration/completion of the final triple fugue from The Art of Fugue does justice to its source material. Like Webern, Berio focuses on that most German of words, Klangfarbenmelodie: using shifting instrumental colors to draw out melodies. Each of Bach's twisted contrapuntal lines receives different treatment under Berio's hand, and he creates a sense of endless, almost Wagnerian melody out of the overlapping phrases. Individual lines breathe with unique character, as in the rhapsodic solos of the second fugue, and the themes within themes of the third. As Berio picks up where Bach left off, things get weirder and the dissonances pile up. The final chords, a cluster sounding the B-A-C-H motif simultaneously, resound with a sickly hum and pose a question: did Berio intend this as a little joke, or is he implying that the natural result of Bach's experimentation results in atonality? Maybe both. Polystylistic and non-dogmatic, Berio was probably commenting on the inane teleology of his friends at Darmstadt, who saw atonality as the final step in the grand march of musical history.

Helmut Lachenmann takes one step beyond that. By breaking down every aspect of the musician's relationship with his instrument, Lachenmann creates tapestries of otherworldly sounds, attentively forging an orchestra which sounds more like electronic experiment than acoustic convention. This deconstruction certainly has a post-Adorno agenda, but lose the philosophical baggage and his music becomes almost fun in its childlike glee at the sheer array of noises an instrument can make. Mouvement separates two groups of winds and strings on the stage (along with three lone violins in the balcony), and plays out a face-off of crazed instrumental effects. Strings buzz, woodwinds sputter, marimbas are bowed. It's a complete inversion of what constitutes regular music-making, tipping the scale so far towards extended technique that the stray A-flat or D-sharp sounds foreign to the ears. Lachenmann erects a tonality of effects, systematizing the bizarre and constructing the deconstructive.

The quick crescendos and decrescendos which make up the first section of Mouvement endow the work with a rigorous pace: bleating clarinets emerge from nothingness, flutists hit their music stands, and trumpeters make fat slaps by putting their palms to their mouthpieces. Effects grow sparser in the second section, which contains a variety of quasi-electronic sounds. Gradually, things gets more crowded again, and at a critical moment the music stops and a solo violin holds a single, high-pitched note for a second before the chaos returns. In the end, slap-tongued clarinets and slap-palmed trumpets, as well as strings bowing the top of their instruments' bridges, come together for an immensely entertaining riot. Throughout the work, the musicians of ICE played with wild, bright-eyed, and absolutely irreverent intensity; Morlot's conducting radiated power and demonstrated that he had internalized Lachenmann's madness.

Despite not enjoying a few of pieces, I found the entire concert engaging for its mixture of works and ICE's impressive musicianship. I can only hope that Lincoln Center and Mostly Mozart will continue to seek out intrepid musicians like Pierre-Laurent Aimard to supervise further weekends of adventure.

Monday, August 16, 2010

many voices

Friday, August 13
Lincoln Center Presents Mostly Mozart: Bach & Polyphonies

Ensemble Basiani
Ars Nova Copenhagen
Paul Hillier, conductor

Bach, Jesu meine Freude
Lux aeterna
Xenakis, Nuits
Traditional Georgian polyphony

Friday night opened up Mostly Mozart's mini-festival Bach & Polyphonies, a freewheeling meditation on counterpoint in all its forms curated by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Aimard has a way of putting together programs that is cunningly intellectual, forging artistic connections which sound brilliant on paper and usually make for a great concert as well (notable exception from last summer: Stockhausen's Kontra-Punkte in-between Haydn and Beethoven). And whether or not the concerts flow effortlessly, the music and performances are always at a high enough caliber that it doesn't really matter.

Polyphony does not make for a coherent theme. Rather, it allows Aimard to showcase a number of fascinating musical styles which happen to feature, at some point or another, multiple voices sounding together. Drawing tangible connections from Bach to Georgian polyphony to Ligeti back to Georgian polyphony to Xenakis would probably do injustice to all the music involved. But if the pretext of a single-name, four-day festival allows us to hear all of this music, then by all means go right ahead.

Bach's Jesu, meine Freude, the apotheosis of choral polyphony, opened the dual-chorus program. Under Paul Hillier's precise conducting (more impressive considering what a week he had), the Arvs Nova Copenhagen produced a wonder of crystal-clear textures, with crisp articulations perfectly matched to Alice Tully's newish acoustics. The ensemble sang with remarkable balance and great flow under Hillier's guidance, endowing Bach's sweet cadences with just the right amount of rubato. I wish, though, that Hillier could have created more drama with the work: his conception, based more on untangling tricky counterpoint than embracing heated religious passion, occasionally came across as sterile.

Not only did the Ensemble Basiani have the most awesome outfits ever, they also drove the Alice Tully almost-capacity crowd wild. Each of their songs (mostly liturgical chant under the auspices of the Georgian Orthodox church) showed off a different aspect of the tradition as well as different sets of skills. The opening tune Mravalzhamier was one of the best---two soloists declaimed "Let us sing together, brothers" with rich vibrato over a nine-man stentorian drone, gradually rising and producing steely, perfect intervals and Bachian cadences. Other songs in the first set highlighted luxurious parallel motion; blocks of serene, haunting sound; floating solos over quivering harmonies; and unsettlingly loud call and response. The sheer stylistic variety alone was impressive, and their singing was top-notch.

The return of Ars Nova Copenhagen brought the most exquisite performance of micropolyphonic Ligeti I have ever heard. That might seem like a subcategory of a subcategory, but it really does speak to the ensemble's virtuosic blend and Hillier's careful conducting (and, probably more importantly, rehearsing). Ligeti's works of the '60s, like Lux aeterna, the Requiem, Lontano, and Atmospheres, are typically referred to as brash, avant-garde, space-age, hyper-electronic. But to quote an old mantra of Schoenberg's, "My music is not modern, it is just badly played." With the refined control of the Ars Nova, Lux aeterna became a sea of lush colors, the dissonances ethereal rather than harsh. The score of Lux aeterna reveals a careful scientific exercise in polyphonic relationships, but in this performance it was something entirely extraordinary.

The return of the Georgian choristers brought an even stranger mix of music, touching upon both the reverent and the playful. Chela, the highlight of the second set, was a somewhat-goofy number in which a farmer sings his woes to his oxen. A soloist made a kind of hooting, almost howling yodel over the ensemble drone, in a light-hearted display of vocal stamina. For the final hymn, one of a grabbag of worksongs from the region around the Black Sea, the Ensemble Basiani demonstrated incredible choral vigor, intoning an enormously loud and badass blaze of sound.

Unfortunately, the weakest part of the program came last. The strengthArvs Nova Copenhagen brought to Lux aeterna caused Xenakis' Nuits to suffer. Xenakis fills this work, a paean to the misfortunes of political prisoners, with a gamut of shrieks, nonsense syllables, whistles, and mutters. But the ensemble's singing, while attentive to each individual effect, conveyed nothing of the ruckus---it lacked the essentially visceral nature of Xenakis's music and rendered the cacophony weirdly impotent.


A Little Night Music: Bach & Polyphonies

Bach, Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering
Eliott Carter, Three Pieces: Riconoszenza, Scrivo in vento, Tri-Tribute
Bach, Two Canons from The Musical Offering
Ligeti, Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano

After an hour of milling around the Lincoln Center plaza, some of the audience reconvened at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse for Aimard and his colleagues' chamber performance. Members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe collaborated with the pianist to play more of what falls under Aimard's broad range of polyphonic music. Alternating between Bach and two moderns didn't reveal much about any of the composers, but provided a framework for excellent music-making.

A wisp of a piece, the Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering cleverly plays with several motifs from the collection, weaving together various aspects of the assortment of canons and fugues. Clara Andrada de la Calle's lithe flute and Mats Zetterqvist's rapt violin, with Luise's Buchberger's cello continuo and Aimard's surprisingly subdued harpsichord (the first time I've heard him an early instrument), worked together more like chamber musicians than Baroque specialists, creating engaging contrapuntal dialogues. Later, without Buchberger, the trio gave delicate performances of two canons from the same collection, the first austere and the second congenial.

Three Carter aphorisms from the past three decades of his career followed the first Bach selection. Much of Carter's music remains impenetrable to me, even after multiple listenings and reading Felix Meyer's and Anne Shreffler's insightful Centennial Portrait. Sometimes it just seems that his music lacks a sense of listenable coherency; it is difficult to ascertain structure or even narrative in many of his works without following along with a score The little Riconscenza for violin lacked a sense of overarching drive and its strident lyricism never reached any particular goal. Scrivo in vento fared better, alternating between long, airy flute melodies and sudden piercing tones, implying polyphony in a single line. Tri-Tribute was the most interesting, especially in Aimard's performance, which deliberately drew out the musical jokes in the wily score.

But the best part of the entire evening came last: a gleaming rendition of Ligeti's Horn Trio. Jonathan Williams joined Aimard and Zetterqvist in the fragmented, craggy score, one of the most profoundly sad works written in the past century. Though the work is somewhat indebted to Brahms, it is not truly a "Hommage a Brahms," despite its subtitle. In a fascinating 1993 lecture at NEC, Ligeti revealed that the dedication was to placate a wealthy, Brahms-loving patron in Hamburg who commissioned the work. Ligeti actually credits Haydn and Beethoven, as well as Henry Cowell and Harry Partch, for helping him find a way out of his stylistic prison: "I had one wall, the avant-garde, and the other wall, the past---and I wanted to escape."

The trio, if anything, resembles Mahler's Ninth Symphony with its two heaving slow movements surrounding two macabre dances. In the first movement, instruments groan in tandem, as if striving to remember a past loss. Messiaen-like rhythmic unisons interject in the piano and violin, painting a fractured landscape over which Williams' burnished horn mourned. A bossa-nova groove cascades through the second movement, emphasized by the deft swing of Aimard's constantly repeating left-hand pattern. The piano and violin become almost completely untethered in the third movement, in phasing patterns which echo Reich.

In the weeping, wailing finale, the horn holds a plaintive note while piano and violin lament. It is a chaconne, that antique form of operatic suffering, with the piano playing a crushing, powerful ground bass. But that bass harmony is not static, and does not remain restricted to the left hand; defying the norms of the chaconne, Ligeti forces the painful repetition to interact with the other instruments, rendering the woe all the more unbearable. An incessant, downwardly stabbing figure brings the piece towards an end, and the violin and horn whisper a final goodbye. Aimard and his colleagues gave a vigorously emotional rendition, with a soul-crushing conclusion. Questions of thematic relevancy became irrelevant, in the face of such fervid music.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

guest blog!

After months of soliciting guest blogs from friends, we finally have our first guest post! I am proud to host a review from Seated Ovation's girlfriend-in-residence Halie Morris, who writes about last Monday's Victoire concert in Chicago. Take it away, Halie:


This Monday the concert series Dusk Variations in Jay Pritzer Pavilion featured Victoire, an alluring new-ish pseudo-classical group promoted by New Amsterdam Records that combines violin and bass with clarinet, keyboards, and lo-fi electronics. Dedicated solely to playing the compositions of group keyboardist Missy Mazzoli, Victoire's outdoor performance complemented Chicago's sweltering summer heat with cool, undulating ripples of soft nostalgia-made-music. While I wasn't able to stay for the entire performance, the songs I heard flowed gently from one to the other, punctuated briefly by Mazzoli's explanations.

In "I am coming to get my things" Mazzoli bases her composition on an answering machine message in which a woman eerily intones the title phrase. The recording trails off at "things..." as if mid-declaration the woman suddenly lost her confidence, unable to commit fully to her statement. Without a program or direction as to the nature of the song, I found myself struck by the poignancy of the words, embarrassed at the thought that I was unintentionally eavesdropping on a private and painful message. But Mazzoli's music, while certainly not happy and carefree, explored all aspects of the message, churning around like a sea in which the occasional instrumental solo rode the crest of a wave. For a brief moment there was an upswing in tempo and feel, but it slid easily back into its original gyrating trance.

"Cathedral City," the title song from Victoire's upcoming first, full album, incorporated lo-fi recorded female choir in enchanting twists, singing, for the most part, a simple "ah" that later took on consonants, transforming into words or word-like syllables (I can't say for sure). While the voices added reverence and awe, presumably evoking the cathedrals indicated in the city, violin and clarinet duetted on contrapuntal melodic lines. The electronic beat forced the song to carry on, while in the violin crunchy dissonances gradually grew in agitation and pitch, threatening to overwhelm the clarinet's noodling ostinato. However, just as suddenly as the violin dissonances appeared, they stopped, and gentle forward motion resumed until the song gracefully petered out.

If, as Mazzoli indicates in an interview, her music is often intended to evoke and replicate nostalgia, Victoire's performance was true to her words. It was impossible for me to listen to "I am coming to get my things" without looking back at similar situations in my own life and "Cathedral City" couldn't help but draw me back to high school days, listening to the coolest band-with-a-cellist Jump Little Children and their similarly evocative and nostalgic song "Cathedrals."

Giving the band a break, Mazzoli performed a song at the piano accompanied by electronics, and the group also played "A Song for Arthur Russell" which began with soft bossa nova rhythms that captivated me with their anachronisms. Everything fell into place when Mazzoli announced that they would be performing a shortened version of her film score for Alice Guy Blanche, commissioned by the Whitney Museum. While she warned that some transitions and cuts might sound awkward, they really blended together quite well, much like how the sudden stop of dissonant violin chords in "Cathedral City" hardly upset my balance. It all made sense because, whether or not Victoire's performance intentionally evoked nostalgia, it always painted a lush landscape, filling in the crevices, detailing the shrubbery, and building the cathedrals that existed around and between principal characters, some of whom were absent for long stretches of time.
-Halie Morris

Thursday, August 12, 2010

canticles of ecstasy

So now Hildegard has her own biopic. I'm not exactly sure, though, why the trailer features Carmina Burana choral/orchestral schlock instead of any of her awesome music. However, Barbara Sukowa is playing the visionary nun, which gives me hope. After all, she did this:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


One of the many things the musical 20th-century has taught us is that the symphony can be anything. In the mid-1800s, writing symphony at the top of a score implied a certain set of conventions. Even before the birth of modernism, composers began brazenly defying genre norms, inflating the form to encompass worlds of sound; naturally, others rebelled against the notion of the symphony-as-omnipotent, writing intimate, classically-refined aphorisms. A century of upending expectations led to the term symphony as almost entirely meaningless. When Glenn Branca can write a post-minimalist grunge symphony for guitars and percussion, and John Corigliano can write a symphony for gigantic wind band and shotgun, what does it really mean anymore?

I think that there is still something that the symphony has left over from the days of Haydn and Beethoven. It indicates a public musical statement, something meant to be heard by a large audience---whether this means it is filled with grandeur or intimacy, whether it upholds tradition or throws away the past, is up to the composer. This is what makes Galina Ustvolskaya's Symphony No. 5 such an uncanny delight. I haphazardly loaded it onto my iPod before leaving for Israel, fairly sure that I hadn't heard it before. I had only a passing familiarity with Ustvolskaya's bizarre music, and wanted to hear more.

It's immediately apparent that Ustvolskaya takes from her teacher and possible-lover Shostakovich. The sound world of the Fifth feels like hyper-distilled Dmitri: a wandering, errant oboe; a jagged violin; an inwardly trilling trumpet; the meandering knocks of percussion. Ustvolskaya subtitles the work "Amen," and the text is the Lord's Prayer recited in Russian, but there is nothing particularly soothing to it. Somehow, as I rode the bus across the granular Israeli desert, with its sharp juxtaposition between stark blue sky and rocky, orange terrain, the soundscape seemed to complement the unchanging landscape.

This music resembles nothing like a symphony, in any of the term's meanings. The instruments wander in circles. The man whispers the prayer without direction. There is no sense of progression, no concept of development over time. How could a symphony clock in at under 14 minutes? (Ustvolskaya's Fourth is only seven.) And how can the instrumentation consist only of violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba, and a wooden cube? It feels fruitless in the same way as Sciarrino's La porta della legge. Does the rapping of the cube represent a judge's gavel? Are there political overtones to a work written in the year of the fall of Communism? In Soviet Russia, the musical boundaries between private and public were clearly defined. Shostakovich learned the hard way that the the symphony should represent a form for public governmental worship. He sought his solace in his string quartets and songs, where he could shape his political and musical voice without intrusion. Ustvolskaya's work feels like a defiance of this notion, carefully mixing the private and public to create a disturbing alchemy.

After eleven minutes of aimlessness, a series of forceful smacks on the wooden block alternate with grief-stricken oboe. The repeated episode turns fiercer, the trumpet trilling more angrily, the man's voice almost weeping. Finally, the spell seems to break with a tuba groan, but the oboe returns for a final lament. We are back exactly where we started: no key modulation, no progress, no result. I am still in the bus, and the desert has not changed. The inconsequential, though, feels monumental.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sunrise at Masada