Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Month: July, 2012

Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Krzysztof Penderecki

The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s oppressive, malevolent music has screeched through the last half century, fusing avant-garde technique and commercial recognition to reach a kind of traumatized blockbuster status. Penderecki’s bleeding, cavernous soundscapes have long been forced out of the concert hall and put to use in the cinema, from Friedkin’s The Exorcist to Kubrick’s The Shining. Indeed, his searing sonorities have become the hallmarks of film composition itself – the sonic evocation of the disturbed imagination. In many ways this encapsulates Penderecki’s problematic character: the enfant terrible responsible for Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima would end up as cinema’s darling.

While working in a Warsaw electronic music studio in the 50s, Penderecki had started to realise new sounds via unconventional instrumental techniques. Much of his early music is essentially intended as an acoustic transcription of electronic textures; novel combinations, rapid orchestral shifts and new textures marked his early 60s compositions. Articulate Silences opened with an exploration of Ligeti’s 1961 work Atmosphères – and in some senses Ligeti’s and Penderecki’s experiments in sound sculpture during the early 60s shared a similar interest in building an orchestral mass of sound. But whereas Ligeti’s clouds of sound were filled with carefully etched internal detail, Penderecki assumed a much broader, brooding wash of colour.

Threnody is a classic product of the composer’s experiments with sound during the 60s. The piece spans 52 string instruments, melding them together in sonoristic manipulation and counterpoint to brutal effect. Threnody’s sustained clusters, faceless convergences in sound and undulating clouds run the full gamut of extended technique – a riot of varying vibrato, slapped instruments, playing on the tailpiece and behind the bridge – matched by a sinister symbolic notation full of thick black lines. At times Penderecki takes an aleatoric approach, offering the players a choice of techniques or demanding irregular degrees of vibrato, but the piece is also marked by a considerable rigour in its timing indications, notated in seconds, as well as specific note clusters. The use of quarter tones, clustered pitches and sound mass accumulate in a reservoir of hypertonality.

As an experiment in sound and notation, Threnody is not particularly unusual for the period – so why has it attained such a unique place in the cultural canon? The answer lies in its title. Originally called 8’37” (a nod in the direction of American composer John Cage and his 4’33”), Penderecki later settled on the more emotive dedication after hearing the piece performed for the first time; as such, Threnody embodies a pairing of new sounds and public emotion, meeting the horror of mass death with the perfection of extreme musical tension.

It is in such terrifying, physical and uncompromising works as Threnody that one finds classical music’s unceasing taste for extreme drama and liberation of the borders of sounds.

Below is a recording of Threnody followed by a brief listening guide.

Threnody can be split into 3 parts: Part 1 at 0:00 opens with the musicians bowing their highest notes, with the 52 players gradually brought into a mass of sound. At 0:18 slow quarter tone vibrato is combined with fast, regular vibrato in the violins and violas. At 0:52 the playing descends into percussive effects with the musicians offered a choice of “musical patterns” to follow. Sounds overlap, slide apart, and build to a cacophonous cluster at 4:50 before dropping to a single sustained cello line by 5:33 and then a fade into 5 seconds of silence at 5:50. Part 2 at 5:56 marks an abrupt change in texture with a scattered collection of sounds feeling almost improvisatory, and yet bound in the veiled symmetry of a 36-voice canon. Part 3 returns to the music of the opening by 7:30, with overlapping clouds of sound building to a huge tone cluster.

The recording above comes from the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit for Naxos. The recording made by the Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig under Herbert Kegel, available on the Berlin Classics label, is highly recommended.

For those interested in exploring Penderecki’s developing style, the 1971 Cello Concerto No. 1 written for the cellist Siegfried Palm is worth a listen. Based on a work from 1967, it shares the violent sound-world of Penderecki’s early compositions, never descends into superficial virtuosity and displays eccentric instrumentation – the orchestration includes a saxophone, accordion and electric guitar.

Artwork: Painting, Philip Guston

by En Liang Khong

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Jeux Vénitiens, Witold Lutosławski

Jeux Vénitiens (or Venetian Games) represents a pivotal juncture in the artistic development of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. Cited by the composer himself as his first mature statement, Jeux Vénitiens not only anticipates the character of much of Lutosławski’s subsequent musical output but also predicts wider developments in the European avant-garde. Despite employing only a modestly sized chamber orchestra, Lutosławski sculpts a wide array of lofty, vaporous soundscapes over the course of the work’s short duration, hinting at the static textural clouds that would later be conjured by György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis.

Completed in 1960, Jeux Vénitiens represents the first example of Lutosławski’s radical compositional technique of “aleatoric counterpoint”. Inspired in part by John Cage’s introduction of chance elements to his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Lutosławski developed his own approach to aleatoric music in the late 50s, hoping finally to capture the elusive aural worlds of his imagination. Although specifying the precise melody played by each instrument in a given passage, Lutosławski affords the performers freedom to decide on the tempo of their respective lines, culminating in a blurred coalescence of animated sounds and textures.

Lutosławski’s claim that “the composer remains the directing force” throughout such passages of aleatory may seem somewhat optimistic. Indeed, any concession to indeterminism inevitably diminishes the composer’s role in the realisation of a piece. Yet, with the only unspecified parameter being temporal, Lutosławski maintains strict control over the timbral and harmonic character of Jeux Vénitiens. The elements of chance merely influence the minutiae; independent, disconnected voices vitalise the musical texture whilst simultaneously merging together, subsumed into the wider aural vista. The conductor signals each segue between the successive aleatoric textures – at which point the musicians move on to the next set of melodies and lines – and as such Jeux Vénitiens is at once both minutely disordered and expansively controlled.

Throughout the piece, the dense, energised mass of individual instrumental lines remains constrained within the overarching musical structure in a thrilling synchronicity of order and chaos. By relinquishing influence over the finer details of his music, Lutosławski shifted his focus to the broader interactions which take place within Jeux Vénitiens: from wider structural arcs and harmonic shifts to the relationships between timbres and melodic contours. As such, this music is highly decorative, teeming with evocative and tactile textures; with Jeux Vénitiens’ aleatoric counterpoint, Lutosławski arrived at a new fusing of the traditional and the modern, the concrete and the abstract, opening up hitherto unimagined forms of musical expression.

Below is a recording of Jeux Vénitiens accompanied by a brief listening guide.

In the first movement, Lutosławski sets up a dichotomy between two contrasting aleatoric musical textures; the first to be introduced is airy and rhythmically vitalised, peppered with chattering woodwinds, and the second (first heard at 0:15) is an ominous brooding soundscape of sustained strings. Each of the numerous transitions is instantaneous, signalled by a single strike on the percussion, as if switching between two disconnected musical worlds.

The brief second movement contains no aleatoric music and acts almost as a transition into the more substantial third movement. The collection of fragmentary musical statements gradually builds in density until a piano chord at 1:08 interrupts the development, introducing a sparse and hesitant closing section.

Decorated by restless figures in the harp and a barely audible piano melody, the graceful, fluttering flute line which begins at 0:04 provides the focal point of the third movement. The musical progression is punctuated throughout by increasingly forceful chords in the strings (the first such disruption is heard at 0:39).

At the opening of the final movement the instrumental timbres of the woodwinds and strings interact conversationally, contrasting their strict separation in the first movement. The frenetic musical development – following the introduction of the piano and brass – is cut off at 2:16 by a wildly pounding piano, only to restart at 2:22. The mass of brass and woodwinds is halted abruptly at 2:31 by the introduction of percussion (recalling the transformative power of the percussion in the first movement). The clattering drums and cymbals drop out at 2:48 to reveal a halo of gently rippling piano arpeggios and re-enter a further three times with decreasing intensity. A brief coda, beginning at 3:47, then closes out the piece.

The recording above is conducted by Lutosławski himself and performed by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, presented on the out of print (but currently not hard to find) Philips collection The Essential Lutosławski. The composer also leads a performance by the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra on a three disc set of orchestral works on EMI.

No survey of Lutosławski’s work is complete without reference to his monumental symphonic cycle; both his Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4 are essential listening. For another chamber work which makes colourful and imaginative use of a limited palette try György Ligeti’s exhilarating Chamber Concerto of 1970.

Artwork: Zeichnung, Adolf Wölfli

by Thomas May

Harmonielehre, John Adams

John Adams today is perhaps the most successful living composer in the United States, known primarily for his modern, minimalist-inflected operas – Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) – and high-profile commissions like the 9/11 tribute On the Transmigration of Souls (2002). But in 1985, the year of Harmonielehre, Adams was still a young, sideburned and open-shirted American composer, abandoning a twelve-year stint teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and enduring an eighteen-month bout of writer’s block. Harmonielehre is the culmination of that period of frustration, and its power derives in part from a feeling of long-awaited breakthrough, an outbreak of momentary inspiration.

The sources of this inspiration are varied: Adams describes a submersion in the writing of Carl Jung at the time, and a surreal dream of “watch[ing] a gigantic supertanker take off from the surface of San Francisco Bay and thrust itself into the sky like a Saturn rocket”, but most important in understanding the form of Harmonielehre is Adams’s recognition and simultaneous rejection of the serialist Schoenbergian tradition, and consequent embrace of the century’s tonal masters: early Schoenberg himself (c.f. 1911’s Gurrelieder), Jean Sibelius, Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler.

Having, as Adams put it, “sided with the Philistines”, Harmonielehre – from the German term for “study of harmony” – treats this melodic tradition without irony, and indulges moments of earnest tonality (amidst, it must be admitted, much dissonance and minimalist soundscape). Most fitting is the composer’s own description, that Harmonielehre “marries the developmental techniques of Minimalism with the harmonic and expressive world of fin de siècle late Romanticism.” The alchemic cleavage of modern technique and romantic sensibility is made all the more striking by the piece’s tripartite movement structure, with each of the three operating in a distinct musical idiom.

The first (unnamed) movement is propelled mechanically at first with pulsing woodwinds and weighty horns partly reminiscent of the minimalist work Music for a Large Ensemble (1978), composed only a few years prior by Steve Reich. But that minimalist aesthetic is quickly subsumed within the swelling orchestration that follows the introduction of a searing cello-led melody. The second movement, however – The Anfortas Wound, taken from the legend of medieval king with wounds that could never heal – is immediately melodic, though meditatively so (à la Sibelius – and Adams has indeed noted his debt to the Finn’s Fourth Symphony). But the result is far more static and moody, generating a sense of tense unease that groans into two separate dissonant climaxes without resolution. In juxtaposition with the second, the third and final movement – Meister Eckhardt and Quackie – feels like an unshackling, perhaps a mirror of the Adams’s creative breakthrough, and in the composer’s words “as airy, serene and blissful as The Anfortas Wound is earthbound, shadowy and bleak.” The pervasive sense of unencumbered flight closes with a climax of entirely defiant euphoria.

Below is a recording of Harmonielehre accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Movement I: immediate introduction of the leitmotif rhythmic pattern at 0:00 with heavy E Minor chords, note the minimalist techniques (woodwind and pizzicato pulses after 0:29, brass at 4:39 and especially 6:21). Key Cello melody at 6:30, orchestra swells after 6:56 (but note continuing minimalist pulses below). High-low contrast emerges between melodic surface and rhythmic undertones. Final swell after 13:22 demonstrates Adams’s trademark sense of rhythmic acceleration, and primary use of brass (as opposed to strings) as the climactic motor (seen also, for example, in The Death of Klinghoffer’s first Chorus).

Movement II: far more conventional (and melodic) use of strings at 0:16, steady climax after 5:00 into the strong dissonance of 5:59 (again, note use of brass). Second climax culminates at 8:52 and into the col legno strings and brass of 9:04. Neither climax resolves the unease (the timbre of the violins at 9:25 assure us of that).

Movement III: immediately conveys an atmosphere with the airiest of flutes and celesta at 0:00, joined by strings at 0:52. Sense of motion also created through timbral shifts (particularly the interplay of strings and woodwinds). Rhythmic turn at 4:30-4:40, into aggressively-paced pulsing like that of The Chairman Dances (1985, the same year) and late 1970s Reich. The skitter of strings at 8:16 and punches of trombones after 8:35 mark the beginning of the final and exultant brass-led climax.

The recording above is the original recording by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for Nonesuch in 1985. Equally commendable is the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle for EMI (which also includes The Chairman Dances and Two Fanfares).

Anyone who enjoys Harmonielehre would no doubt also take pleasure in Adams’ The Chairman Dances, composed in the same year. For a more ironic take on melodic power, see his earlier Grand Pianola Music (1982).Any look at the minimalist movement must also acknowledge the singular influence of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1976) and Music for a Large Ensemble (1978).

Artwork: Terre Écossaise, Max Ernst

by Simon Torracinta 

Ionisation, Edgard Varèse

Composed in 1931, Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation is the first piece of Western classical music to be scored for an ensemble comprised solely of percussion instruments. As such, one might expect to be subjected to a one-dimensional barrage of colourless noise over the course of the work’s short duration. Yet what is striking about this piece of music is the degree of sensitivity with which the composer controls the instrumental timbres, achieving an understated grace and eloquence of expression which reaches far beyond more common functional uses of percussion. With only a fleeting contribution from a piano in its dying moments, Ionisation finds Varèse abandoning notions of melody and harmony altogether in order to focus on the minutiae of musical texture, conjuring a diverse array of subtly shaded and intricately detailed soundscapes.

Scored for thirteen musicians and a collection of instruments ranging from bass drums and bongos to triangles and castanets, Varèse assembles and combines this variety of different instrumental timbres with such delicacy that at times the ensemble appears to merge into a single entity. The cavernous opening of the piece is indicative of Varèse’s lightness of touch: at one point the gong and bass drum are struck simultaneously so that the short, hollow sound of the drum appears to hang in the air, cloaked in the metallic shiver of the decaying gong. Throughout the piece, the ubiquitous moans of the sirens (a trademark sound of Varèse’s music) trace long curves through the soundscape, softly shading the atmosphere with an intoxicating air of mystique.

Despite betraying a distinct Futurist influence throughout many of his works, and particularly on Ionisation, Varèse’s music eschews the unrefined cacophony and overt machismo of Luigi Russolo’s “noise intoners” and Art of Noises manifesto. Having moved to America at the age of 32, the French-born composer was deeply affected by the aural experience of living in urban New York. Rather than simply mirroring these sounds however, Varèse incorporates distant echoes of industrial noise into his music in a process of attempting to liberate Western classical music from the tyranny of conventional tuning systems, rhythms and timbres.

On his prophetic quest to compose what he called “organised sound” – which anticipated many subsequent developments in electronic music and ultimately culminated in his 1958 sound collage Poème électroniqueIonisation stands as perhaps the fullest realisation of Varèse’s bold and uncompromising aesthetic vision. This music is at once expansive and intimate, ugly and irresistibly beautiful: Ionisation combines the terrifying cacophony of the industrial world with a profound sensitivity, unlocking the sensuous, human potential of inhuman noise.

Below is a recording of Ionisation followed by a brief listening guide.

Ionisation proceeds as a number of miniature sections, each with a different textural character. The ominous opening of rolling bass drums and gongs gives way at 0:28 to a shuffling passage led by the snare drum and bongos. Following a brief interruption from 0:43 to 0:57, the snare drums continue as new timbral elements are gradually introduced. The next section begins at 2:11 with angular rhythmic statements contrasting the steady flow of the preceding music, continuing until 2:52 when a furtive tinkling of triangles and bells emerges. Agitated figures in the drums punctuate the backdrop of bells and moaning sirens, increasing in resolve until 4:18 when the music unfolds into a spacious texture of stabbed piano chords and chimes. Ionisation then dissolves away in a shimmering mist of decaying gongs, disappearing into the same fog from which it rose.

The recording above is of the ASKO Ensemble conducted by Riccardo Chailly, available on Decca’s excellent two disc set of Varèse’s complete works. I would also recommend Pierre Boulez’s recording with the Ensemble InterContemporain, recently reissued on Deutsche Grammophon.

The similarly percussive Hyperprism and the electro-acoustic magnum opus Déserts would both serve well as entry points for further investigation into Varèse’s sound-world. For other works exploring the extremities of percussion music try John Cage’s 1939 piece First Construction and Iannis Xenakis’ large collection of works for percussion, especially 1979’s Pléïades.

Artwork: Skyscrapers on Transparent Yellow, Josef Albers

by Thomas May

Pelléas et Mélisande, Claude Debussy

“The century of aeroplanes deserves a music of its own”, announced the French composer Claude Debussy as he set about creating a new musical language at the close of the 19th century, reaching a sensual ambience in his orchestral rejection of German symphonic form and melodic development. At the Paris Conservatory, he was accused of “vague impressionism”; his departure from rigid tonality embraced timeless modality, chromatic liberation and melodic expanse. Dissonant expression, unresolved chords and whole-tone and pentatonic scales all added to the delicate gauze of sound.

Whilst classical music critic Alex Ross begins his epic survey of the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise, with Richard Strauss’ Salome, Debussy’s only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande – which received its premier in 1902 – holds equal symbolic weight, standing at the edge of centuries. Debussy took his libretto from the Belgian Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play – an adulterous tragedy where the timeless narrative, open to perpetual interpretation, never makes clear any sexual detail: Prince Golaud discovers Mélisande lost in a forest, marries her and returns to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Mélisande’s attachment to Golaud’s half-brother Pelléas spirals into increasing jealousy with Golaud rushing to kill his brother as he confesses his love with Mélisande. As Golaud repeatedly begs her for “the truth”, Mélisande dies after giving birth to a daughter.

Debussy’s direct setting of Maeterlinck’s prose text, his rejection of set-pieces and use of silent expression – all bathed in half-light – was highly influential on the history of 20th century opera. But even from its premiere, Pelléas has never sat comfortably; the orchestra complained that the score was “unplayable, outrageous” while the audience thought of its abstraction as “celestial boredom”.

Pelléas’ problems have always been rooted in its tortuous relationship with 19th century Wagnerian opera and its heightened drama, orchestral intensity, perpetual melody and use of leitmotifs (repeated musical ideas). Pelléas resonates both musically and textually – in its use of mythic beauty, the fatalistic, the forbidden and the symbolic – with Wagnerian tradition. And yet Debussy’s orchestra is far more shaded, his music pursues natural speech rhythms – reaching almost the negative aesthetic of the modernists.

Auden described Pelléas as “one of the great anti-operas” and in many ways, that’s a perfect description for Debussy’s shift from the maximalism of Wagnerian opera. Pelléas rejects symphonic artificiality and instead seeks the internal musicality and drama of the human voice. Vocal declamation of the text, approaching the fluidity of chant, looks towards clarity rather than high emotion. Debussy’s orchestral diminution above all stressed instrumental colour over volume – at the central climax as Pelléas professes his love, the orchestra is silent with Mélisande’s reply. Interrupted musical lines build a sonic impression of the opera as a shaded surface, fractured only by voice. The discomforting ambivalence in unresolved harmony, modal pull, whole-tone scales and chromatic suggestion all work against the operatic ideal.

Below is a recording of Pelléas et Mélisande accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Stretching to two and a half hours, this five-act opera hardly lends itself to a compressed listening guide. I have picked out a couple of moments to look for in this highly claustrophobic, shadowy sound-world.

ACT I opens with a softly spoken orchestral prelude in muted cellos and double-basses, spinning out a series of themes – sparse, vaporous tones perfectly set up the otherworldly forest scene where Golaud encounters Mélisande, singing in fragmented melody. The act closes as elusively as it begins with 27:15 the first time Mélisande addresses a direct question to Pelléas.

ACT II begins with Pelléas bringing Mélisande to the Blind Men’s Well– floating flute lines and harp arpeggiation creating a liquidity in the texture. This forms the crux of the opera, with Mélisande losing her ring and so setting Golaud’s jealousy in motion – he orders her to search for it, leading to the cavern scene 23:00 where orchestral colour floods in, fed by blooming harp glissandos (in contrast to the claustrophobia of the opening forest scene).

ACT III opens with Mélisande’s song in the tower – the only point where she is alone. The emphasis is on phrase patterns, with her song shaped not by music but by syllabic flow. By 22:15 Golaud’s jealousy is open and through accumulated, unresolved orchestral tension, the music here forms a crescendo into the terrifying passage at 31:20 where the string section plays ‘sul pont’ (near the bridge of the instrument).

ACT IV increases the psychological agitation, with Golaud’s outburst at 8:40, and Debussy’s interlude at 14:58 opening into full orchestral climaxes. 31:58 sees the opera’s culmination as the lovers spot Golaud – achieving musical orgasm in accelerating instrumental rhythm, orchestral release and the ecstasy of vocal phrasing.

ACT V brings the servants’ entrance at 15:24 in muted conclusion, with the emotional flow disrupted by sonic bursts.

The performance above belongs to Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. A completely different performance can be found in Karajan’s post-romantic approach on his EMI recording.

To explore further Debussy’s subtle orchestral hues, his short ballet, Jeux, is seen by many as an even fuller expression of his avant-garde sound-world. Another piece in the Maeterlinck repertoire is Arnold Schoenberg’s 1903 symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande – stretching both tonality and texture, the piece originally started as an opera.

Artwork: A set design from 1953, Dmitri Bouchene

by En Liang Khong