Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Month: August, 2012

Terrains Vagues, Per Nørgård

It was nothing special / because everything was special / the mysteries presented themselves / as a matter of course…

Terrains Vagues takes its title from a phrase first used by the French writer Victor Hugo to refer to the indistinct areas of land that sit uneasily on the boundaries between urban civilisation and the untamed expanse of nature; regions characterised by uncertainty, forming sites of conflict as the dominating force of human culture relinquishes power to its irresistible adversary. Taking inspiration partly from Klaus Rifbjerg’s poem of the same name (an extract of which is quoted above), Danish composer Per Nørgård’s Terrain Vagues evokes the lonely mystique that hovers above these forgotten stretches of no-man’s land with vast blocks of sound subtly shaded in translucent clouds of woodwinds and strings. Completed in 2001 and scored for an orchestra of medium size, the work is unusual in its inclusion of an accordion as well as in the prominence afforded to the low brass instruments; as such, this music exists within its own enigmatic aural world, entirely disconnected from any of the more familiar soundscapes of orchestral music.

As Terrains Vagues unfolds, Nørgård explores the conflict implicit in his chosen theme, examining the elusive relationship between the vague and the precise (the wild, natural and the controlled, human) elements of his music with striking dexterity and insight. Rather than perceiving the two as an antagonistic dichotomy, separate and distinguishable, Nørgård presents these qualities as inextricably connected, symbiotically intertwined in dialogic interaction. Midway through the second movement, three metronomes are set off at different speeds, coalescing to form a delicately circling rhythmic texture. Working from the same premise as György Ligeti’s 1962 composition (or Fluxus prank, depending on your view) Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes, Nørgård’s more sparing use of the metronome achieves a clarity distinctly lacking from that earlier work, the admirable vision of which was largely obscured by its irreverence and excess. The binary distinction between the controlled and the chaotic is continually blurred as the unchanging rhythmic pulses combine to form a soundscape that is constantly in flux: the immutable becoming the transient, the certain becoming the unpredictable.

This work is rife with ambiguity: intoxicating and mysterious. Whilst often highly volatile and brutish, tormented throughout by rasping low brass, Terrain Vagues is cloaked in a spectral mist of moaning woodwinds, strings and shimmering pitched percussion. Even the work’s boldest gestures are undercut by a nagging uncertainty: the score dictates that the snarling brass chords at its opening are to be played “vaguely” so that the regimented rhythm and physicality of the music becomes tempered by imprecision. It is as if Terrains Vagues exists only as a shadow of its original self: what was once bright and iridescent has become bleached, eroded by the passage of time. This is a quality most fully realised on the final movement as the elemental procession of the music is haunted by fragments of a playful, jazzy melody which stalk through the soundscape.

Whilst Per Nørgård has certainly written more ambitious and expansive music than Terrain Vagues, rarely has he achieved such a glorious synergy of the earthen and the ethereal: this masterful work transforms the contradiction and conflict of the vague areas of its title into a seductive, mysterious intangibility.

Below is a recording of Terrains Vagues followed by a brief listening guide.

Terrains Vagues is cast in three movements, played without out a break.

The first movement, ‘Terrains’ (0:00-5:09), is built upon an off-kilter rhythmic foundation of low brass, double-basses and the accordion. The anxious central motif of the movement (and indeed the piece as a whole) is first explicitly introduced on pitched percussion at 0:48, subsequently taken up in the piano at 0:55. The motif is then elaborated throughout the movement, notably at 2:28 when it is passed between the pitched percussion and high brass instruments. As the movement gradually loses momentum, with its rhythms constantly derailed, flourishes of percussion and brass bring the music to a temporary resting point at 4:28, leaving only their shadow in the throb of low strings.

‘Vagues’ runs from 5:09-13:37 and contrasts ‘Terrains’’ ferocity with subtly shaded soundscapes. Nørgård’s technique of blurring rhythmically rigid sonic fragments into indistinct clouds of sound is used prominently in this movement: from its opening coalescence of high woodwinds and pitched percussion to the metronomes of 6:47-8:16, cloaked in mysterious, translucent harmonies. Following a tumultuous brass-lead passage from 8:50-10:57, the metronomes return amidst frenetic pizzicato in the low strings. The movement then draws to a close with disconnected statements from various instrumental groups (listen in particular for the playful melody in the brass at 11:40 which will form the basis of the next movement), as well as restatements of the central motif of the first movement (11:59, 13:16).

The final movement (‘Terrains Vagues’, beginning at 13:37) is the most enigmatic of the piece. On a backdrop of moaning winds and strings, the melody initially heard in the brass at 11:40 is restated and elaborated in various fragmentary forms, achieving striking vitality at 14:24. Soon after, the music becomes increasingly dense, with only fleeting glimpses of the melody emerging from the mass. The return of the low strings at 17:50 instils a new momentum to the music, propelling the piece to its conclusion (listen out for the furtive echoes of the movement’s opening melody in the woodwind at 18:46-18:52). By 21:12 the music has completely deflated, replaced by the tentative shuffle of percussion and stuttering statements of the piece’s central motif on piano.

The recording above is played by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the piece’s dedicatee Thomas Dausgaard. This fine performance appears on a disc with Nørgård’s wonderful sixth symphony on the Chandos record label and is the only recording of Terrains Vagues currently available.

An informative overview of Nørgård’s compositional development is provided by his cycle of eight symphonies. Particularly recommended are his cosmic Symphony No. 3 (which serves as the fullest realisation of his mathematical technique of composition, the Infinity Series), the brooding, schizophrenic Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 6 “At the End of the Day”, which is a companion piece of sorts to Terrain Vagues.

Artwork: Iberia #2, Peter Motherwell

by Thomas May

L’enfant et les sortilèges, Maurice Ravel

The ornate, nocturnal sound-world of French composer Maurice Ravel has left its indelible stain across the arc of 20th century music, whether sowing the seeds for minimalism in 1928’s Bolero, or finally meeting up with dance culture in 1995 with the release of electronic instrumentalist William Orbit’s Pieces in a Modern Style. In his epic survey of the 20th century, The Rest is Noise, the music journalist Alex Ross described the composer as “something of a cultural mutt” – a reference to the Basque folk music heritage of Ravel’s mother and the engineering background of his Swiss father. Dual identity inevitably appeared in his musical language, encompassing Ravel’s love of folk-song as well as his embracing of frozen harmonies and mechanized texture.

Admitted to study with Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, Ravel fell under the cathartic influence of the 1889 Exposition Universelle (an experience that had so profoundly inspired Debussy’s music), where he encountered gamelan, Spanish and Russian music. Much like Debussy, Ravel’s new sounds also bridged the maximalism of Romanticism and the modernism of the new century. His music discovered a novel sense of space, encapsulated in the resonance of tolling bells that fall through his 1905 suite for solo piano, Miroirs.

But the comic filth of Ravel’s 1911 opera L’heure espagnole – a tale of adultery and dirty old men hiding in grandfather clocks – explicitly rejected the heightened sexual emotion of Debussy’s escapist opera Pelléas. Ravel’s second opera, L’enfant et les sortileges, had its premiere in 1925 with a libretto by Colette, who later observed how little contact she had with the composer. As such L’enfant stands as a perfect example of Ravel’s singular imagination, with a keen eye for operatic clichés in its sequences involving a ragtime duet for teapot and china cup, a princess’ lament and a chorus delivered by wallpaper shepherds. From its dancing animals through to eccentric instrumentation (including a cheese grater), this opera is pure Alice in Wonderland territory.

In Part 1 a child refuses to do his homework and confined to his room he falls into a rage, attacks his tame squirrel and the cat, breaks the Grandfather Clock and tears up his books. But the room awakes and the mistreated objects find their voices. In Part 2 the child wanders into the garden where he faces further accusations from the plants and the animals, building to a commotion in which the squirrel is injured. The child bandages the wound and seeing this act of reconciliation, the animals sing of his kindness. The opera closes with the child singing “Maman”, perhaps evoking the similar cry of dying soldiers in Colette’s book La chambre éclairée.

L’enfant revels in melodic celebration, balletic focus and pastiche, whether it be an 18th century courtly dance for a couple of chairs, or a duet for cats (which caused a scandal in its Paris premiere). And yet with the narrative’s Freudian tones, the obsession with dance, and the gradual shift itself within the instrumentation from aggression towards a magical, shifting soundscape, L’enfant’s success lies in its ability to be more than a collection of sketches. Roger Nichols describes one Glyndebourne performance ending with “middle-aged men in evening dress and floods of tears”. The opera’s themes of maternal love and natural harmony make for so much more than escapist nostalgia, while all dressed up in Ravel’s jewelled night music.

Below is a recording of L’enfant, followed by a brief listening guide.

At 1:52 two oboes circle, seemingly without direction, in an introduction that prefaces the circularity and symmetry pervading the entirety of the opera. The audience immediately identifies with the child who enters at 3:12, characterized by a vocal line clearly pitched below the instrumentation. A whole sequence of pastiches follows as the objects of the boy’s rage respond, from the 18th century dance performed by two chairs at 6:27 through to the ragtime duet of the china cup and teapot at 9:40. The opera takes a melancholic turn at 18:45 with the appearance of a fairy-tale princess who is left without a future because the child has torn apart the story-book. The first concentrated emotional climax comes with the child’s lament for the departed princess, “Toi, le Coeur de la rose” (23:44) in a nod to French operatic tradition. Musical rupture continues with the arrival of Arithmetic (25:33) and his frantically dancing numbers. The opera’s garden scene opens in a halo of nocturnal sounds (30:10) and tranquil harmonic movement. But the tension increases as the child calls out for “Maman!” (40:29) and the garden’s inhabitants turn on the child. Amidst the chaos, the squirrel is injured. The opera reaches its crux as the child bandages the squirrel’s paw (41:30) in a meeting of reality and magic. The animals sing their hymn of praise (44:00) and the opera closes with the child greeting his mother.

The recording comes from the 1987 Glyndebourne production, but Lorin Maazel’s version with the RTF National Orchestra for the Deutsche Grammophon label comes highly recommended (as does his recording of L’Heure Espagnole).

To take a look at the signature Ravel has left on contemporary music, have a listen to Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald’s Recomposed project (also on Deutsche Grammophon).

Artwork: Glyndebourne set design, David Hockney

by En Liang Khong

Music for 18 Musicians, Steve Reich

In 1976, moving on from experimental works and adventures in tape phasing, minimalism grew up. Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the genre’s austere masterpiece, has since taken its place as one of the cultural watersheds of the 20th century. Writing for his own ensemble, Reich created a minimalist orchestra of sorts, comprising mallet percussion, pianos, strings, women’s voices and clarinets. This combination brought his proto-synthesized soundworld to life in which four interlocking piano patterns seem to fuse into a clarinet descant, or the intensely pure sound of the vibrato-less strings and voices blend seamlessly into one another.

The influence of Reich’s time spent studying gamelan and African drumming can be seen in the visual impact of a performance. The ensemble is reminiscent of an egalitarian African society in which there is no leader (or conductor) – drummers weaving a contrapuntal web of perfectly interlocking patterns, four village women gossiping – transmuted into the immaculate, clear-cut visual and sonic world of the Western concert hall. Reich’s polemics also blur the boundaries between “high” and “low” genres; in the 70s the work was even played as dance music. It has been taken variously as a metaphor for communism, with its egalitarian power hierarchy and loss of individual identity, as well as capitalism, with one musicologist going so far as to relate the repetitive structures of the music to the rows of identical products in the American supermarket. Either way, it matters to people in a way that elevates it above its humble origins in a Manhattan loft.

Its conception is symphonic in scale, consisting of eleven distinct but related pieces (“sections”) each inspired by a single chord, but each taking the harmonic discourse further. The harmony takes cues from French composer Claude Debussy, jazz, and Renaissance polyphony, all polished and updated for the modern age. As a result, the work is uniquely pan-historical – it sets a re-imagining of ancient music alongside a projection of the music of the future. Its beautifully tonal harmonic spectrum and melodic simplicity embody the minimalist rejection of uncompromisingly brutal postwar modernism.

Inspired by a dream in which Reich and his ensemble were drumming on a beach with the waves washing up around them, growing and fading pulse waves are the driving force behind the work. Groups of instruments expose hypnotic melodic patterns adding a new note every so often – the opposite of traditional practice of linear fragmentation and variation. Slowly evolving melodic figures are set over fixed cadences, with the resulting magical effect of varying that which is unchanging. This gradual development of each melodic pattern reconstitutes our sense of time so that we genuinely begin to value each new note; time really does seem to freeze during a performance. No wonder, then, that Reich, rather than Philip Glass, has won a reputation as “the thinking man’s minimalist” – in place of the interminable, meditative scales and arpeggios of his aesthetic colleague, he reinvigorates the emotional potential of tonality and the musical satisfaction of large-scale form within a trance-inducing and crystalline soundscape.

Below is a recording of Music for 18 Musicians followed by a brief listening guide.

The basic cycle of eleven chords itself is played in sections consisting only of pulses at the beginning and end of the work, much like a mediaeval Cantus Firmus upon which all intervening complexity is constructed. Two pulsing marimbas fill in the background throughout, whilst other instruments foreground pulse waves, each the length of a human breath, to illuminate the changing harmonies. Having heard nothing but pure harmony until now, the marimba pattern at the start of Section I (5:40) is both refreshing and intriguing. The vibraphone gives aural cues when it is time to move on to the next phrase, such as at 6:53, which gives each performance a uniquely improvisatory quality. Section II highlights Reich’s process of additive melody – starting at 10:25, the xylophones gradually replace rests with notes, building up to a mesmerising, endless loop. The arch-like structure of each section is particularly clear in Section IIIA (14:38), in which the polarised, energetic harmony cools off in the centre of the section at 15:50. After circling indecisively in Section IV (22:18), in Section V, the midpoint of the piece (28:55), the bass clarinets lower the floor from the sunny major modes of the opening to a chilling minor. From this point onwards the harmony spirals down into darker territory, beginning with a showpiece for the four pianos, who build a rhythmicized wall of sound by playing an identical buildup a beat out of phase with each other, reaching a transfixing climax at 31:45. Section VI (35:44), reminiscent of the earlier IIIA, has been described as ‘the scherzo of the piece’ – hints of fiery dance rhythms with offbeat accents in the xylophone pulses and a surprise entry of maracas underpin a jazzy syncopated riff in the front octet. Section VII, a darker recasting of the first section, sees the cello taking the role of electric bass to support the voices’ stratospheric bursts of melody (41:57). The busier Sections IX and X at 48:33 and 53:58 respectively begin the journey back to brightness, and after a cautiously optimistic section XI (55:48), the opening pulses return at 1:01:50, as if we have witnessed the complete cycle of a day. We have come to the end of the acoustic maze so perfectly built for us.

Not everyone takes kindly to new recordings of older Reich works, but its popularity has ensured that Music for 18 Musicians has been recorded several times. The above recording is by the Steve Reich Ensemble, but undoubtedly the most enthralling version is by Ensemble Modern, available on the RCA Red Seal Label.

Almost every work by Reich marks a turning point in the composer’s style. The most notorious of his radical, early ‘phasing’ period are It’s Gonna Rain and Four Organs. Drumming sounds like a visceral unrefined cousin of Music for 18 Musicians, while Different Trains stands out as one of the most powerful pieces of memorial art ever created. His jazz and rock influences are also evident in New York Counterpoint and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet.

Artwork: Broadway Boogie-Woogie, Piet Mondrian

by Joel Sandelson

Symphonie, Anton Webern

Anton Webern’s Symphonie of 1928 is an enigmatic coalescence of tentative melodies softly shaded in delicate harmonies and textures. Eschewing Beethovan’s notion of the triumphalist symphony, Webern’s sole contribution to the symphonic canon is characteristic of the composer in its brevity and poise, displaying a striking economy in both its emotive content and musical construction. This is a piece of immense, even esoteric, restraint, reaching towards a timeless grace and crystalline beauty through an earnest pursuit of perfection in proportion and symmetry.

Born in Austria in 1883, Anton Webern was a student of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna. The two composers, along with another of Schoenberg’s students Alban Berg, comprise the Second Viennese School – named after the (first) Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In the early 1920s Schoenberg developed his twelve tone method of composition, known as serialism, which was soon adopted by both Berg and Webern. At the heart of a twelve tone composition is a “tone row”, consisting of all twelve notes of the octave, which dictates the order in which the notes are to be played throughout the piece. As such, each tone is treated equally, removing what Schoenberg perceived to be the archaic hierarchical relationships between the notes of a scale. Schoenberg’s method represents a monumental schism between old and new, completely liberating compositional practice from the long imposed restrictions of traditional tonality.

Whilst the twelve tone method is certainly uncompromising in its formality, the common portrayal of serialist music as unlistenable noise seems rather hyperbolic in light of the elegant lyricism of Webern’s Symphonie. The understated beauty of this music comes from Webern’s highlighting of instrumental timbre, whilst downplaying the roles of melody and harmony: this piece is ornately textured, coloured in subtle, translucent hues. A key technique used throughout the piece is that of klangfarbenmelodie, a method of instrumentation pioneered by Webern and Schoenberg, translating from the German as “sound-colour-melody”. Rather than scoring a melody to be played by just one instrument, Webern breaks his melodies up into fragments and distributes them around the different instrumental groups of the orchestra.

Despite Webern’s rather austere use of Symphonie’s small ensemble, often allowing only one instrumental group to be heard at a time, the prominence of klangfarbenmelodie in the piece bestows it with a broad and sensuous sound palette; this music achieves a fleeting simultaneity of the intimate and the expansive as the musical thread is passed between various orchestral voices in an endless stream of ethereal colours and textures. Listening to this piece is reminiscent of watching shards of light scatter across a rippling surface of water: Webern’s Symphonie is fragile and evanescent, sparkling and mysteriously hypnotic.

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

Movement I runs from 0:00 to 6:27 and features prominent use of Webern’s klangfarbenmelodie technique; the music has a hesitancy as the melody moves between the instruments, exploring a wide and understated palette of colour and timbre. The first section is fragile and melodic, heard from 0:00 to 2:22, and is followed by a contrasting, slower moving section from 2:22 to 3:24. These passages of music are then repeated and reflected in various ways until the close of the movement.

Movement II begins at 6:27 and consists of a theme (heard from 6:27 to 6:45) followed by a series of seven variations (which begin respectively at 6:45, 6:58, 7:08, 7:33, 8:02, 8:15 and 8:36) and closed off finally by a brief coda at 9:00. Listen for the spotlighting of different instrumental groups throughout the variations, bestowing the movement with a variety of colour and texture.

Being one of Webern’s more popular works, there are a number of recordings of Symphonie currently available; the recording above is conducted by Pierre Boulez and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Another fine performance comes from the Berliner Philharmoniker, also conducted by Boulez, and is available on Deutsche Grammophon’s excellent set of Webern’s complete works.

Along with the Symphonie, Webern’s opus number 10, 5 Pieces for Orchestra, and the expansive late Cantatas No. 1 and 2 are relatively large scale works that would serve well as entry points into his music. In contrast to Webern’s decidedly minimal style, Arnold Schoenberg’s 5 Pieces for Orchestra of 1909 is an example of some of the more expressive music to arise from the Second Viennese School.

Artwork: Color Form No. 26, Michael Loew

by Thomas May

Como una ola de fuerza y luz, Luigi Nono

Como una ola de fuerza y luz is a nightmarish labyrinth of shadowy dissonance and tactile timbres punctuated with violent emotive outbursts. Composed in 1972 and scored for orchestra, solo soprano, piano and tape, this piece is the fearsome pinnacle of Italian composer Luigi Nono’s middle period: politically charged, furiously expressive and sonically uncompromising. With its title roughly translating as “like a wave of strength and light”, Como una ola de fuerza y luz was composed in memory of Nono’s friend and fellow Communist activist Luciano Cruz, the leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left in Chile who died the previous year. Fusing searing anger and heartfelt lament into a warped, volatile elegy, Como una ola de fuerza y luz stretches and contorts the very fabric of the aural space in which it is so precariously confined with wild gestures of passion and despair.

As with so many of Nono’s works, the human voice provides a focal point amidst the stormy chaos of Como una ola de fuerza y luz. Considering the voice to be the most potent medium of expression, Nono often used vocal parts to act as an emotive centre to his music. In this piece the solo soprano takes the role almost of a narrator, contextualising the vast, abstract expanse of colliding sound with anguished cries of “Luciano!”. This work began its life as a piano concerto before Nono decided to include a part for soprano and, as such, the music revolves perilously around two distinct and contrasting nuclei: the stirring articulations of the voice sit uneasily against the almost mechanical pounding of the piano.

Como una ola de fuerza y luz exemplifies Nono’s pioneering work in electro-acoustic composition, seamlessly integrating pre-recorded sounds and noises into the music. Often hovering furtively on the edge of the audibility, Nono’s tape collage of distant voices and pianos cloaks the entire space in an effervescent cloud of half-remembered sounds: as if the music, having been played, is lingering on, still reverberating around the aural space. The tape is heard most prominently when accompanying the solo parts of the soprano, creating an illusion of the singer imprinting herself on the passage of time, overlapping and coalescing with her previous incarnations in a sustained cry of sorrow.

Nono himself described the use of pre-recorded sounds in Como una ola de fuerza y luz as “resembling the opening and closing of a space upon itself, like the extending and receding of a life”. This beautiful and eloquent description is particularly pertinent in illustrating Nono’s striking humanism as a composer; in a time when the classical avant-garde was becoming increasingly intellectualised and esoteric, Nono continued to put his faith in music as a performance art, emphasising it as something to be heard, not simply to be theorised about. It is from this foundation that Nono could create such communicative and brutally visceral aural experiences as this.

Below is a recording of Como una ola de fuerza y luz followed by a brief listening guide.

The piece opens as the orchestra tentatively fades in from silence, subtly coloured by the pre-recorded voices. The soprano enters at 2:29, backed by the recordings of piano and voices, and gains intensity in a series of impassioned outbursts. The next section begins at 6:34 and sees the piano (and its pre-recorded counterpart) battling against interjections from the orchestra. The soprano is reintroduced at 13:30, this time exploring more overtly melodic territory than the earlier angular section. By 14:40 both piano and soprano have dropped out, leaving only their vague memory in the haunting tape part. The orchestra is brought back at 15:21, first with clusters of brass and then, at 17:10, with shivering chords on the strings and the harp. The music then begins an inexorable rise in pitch until it has reached a piercing white noise at 24:48. The orchestra and piano begin the final section at 25:41 which concludes with a tape solo from 28:04, shrouding glimpses of the soprano’s earlier music in waves of noise.

The electrifying performance above is conducted by Claudio Abbado, with stunning performances from soprano Slavka Taskova and pianist Maurizio Pollini, and is available on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

For another of Nono’s politically charged works try his 1975 opera Al gran sole carico d’amore. As a fine example of his latter, more contemplative style, the colossal Prometeo of 1984 is essential listening (if something of a daunting prospect). The music of Giacinto Scelsi, a fellow Italian, shares many aspects of Nono’s sound-world; his 1965 piece Anahit is an enigmatic masterpiece of mysterious, static tension.

Artwork: Untitled (Bacchus), Cy Twombly

by Thomas May