Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Month: September, 2012

The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky

In one of the most frequently recounted episodes of 20th century music, the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring ended in an audience riot as the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées erupted in protest. To modern listeners, the most striking feature of the Russian composer’s third ballet is its high level of dissonance; jarring, oppressive chords tear through the soundscape in an unrelenting cacophony of clashing sounds. Yet, for those attending its premiere there were a number of other disagreeable characteristics of the performance. Indeed, Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography, labelled as “uncouth” by one reviewer, contributed as much to the audience’s indignation as the music.

Musically, in addition to its provocative harmonic character, perhaps what was most shocking to the ballet’s early audience was Stravinsky’s abandonment of classical melodic and harmonic development in favour of the foregrounding of the rhythmic and timbral properties of the music. The Rite of Spring proceeds in a series of disjointed miniatures exploring the kaleidoscopic potential of orchestral colour; wildly oscillating timbres contour the ballet’s progression as musty, pungent webs of woodwind are violently ruptured by volcanic masses of brass and searing strings. The music is thrust forward by strident rhythms, perpetually derailed by off-kilter syncopation preventing the establishment of any sense of regular flow. Each musical gesture in The Rite of Spring is nightmarishly exaggerated to form a sinister, uneasily contorted aural world.

Stravinsky’s melodic writing centres around brief interlocking motifs; snippets of Russian folk melodies are densely layered in a fragmentary collage, enacting a collision between the traditional music of his country and the techniques of modernist composition. This juxtaposition of the archaic with the fiercely contemporary imparts a thrilling dramatic tension to The Rite of Spring, bestowing a dialogic depth to its ruthless explorations of rhythm. Equally likely to be described as barbaric or primitive as it is avant-garde or sophisticated, this piece gains as much of its potency from looking backwards in time as it does from forging stubbornly ahead. Remarkable in appealing simultaneously to both the visceral and the cerebral with equal fervour, The Rite of Spring is superficially petulant and temperamental whilst somehow maintaining an aura of austerity.

In his memoir, Stravinsky claimed that the narrative of the ballet had come to him in a horrifying, lucid vision of three years prior: “I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death.” Whether the story of the work’s inception is true or merely a case of retrospective myth-making is an interesting question, but the brutal nature of the ballet’s climactic ritual, combined with the pummelling physicality of the music, provoked early onlookers into a state of frenzied outrage. In the time since the piece was written, rhythm and timbre have become primary concerns in much Western music: from the minimalism of Reich and Glass to the hip-hop of J Dilla and Madlib. The monumental break with tradition that The Rite of Spring represents is thus diminished in its impact today but Stravinsky’s ballet remains a thrillingly direct and engaging piece of music.

Below is a recording of The Rite of Spring followed by a brief listening guide.

The Rite of Spring is cast in two main parts, both of which are further divided into smaller episodes.

Part I opens with the furtive fluttering of a solo bassoon in its highest register, soon joined by the other woodwinds. The insistent motif on pizzicato strings first heard at 2:48 brings the introductory passage to a close, ushering in the obsessive rhythms of 3:11-6:20; although the rhythm remains constant throughout this section, a vitality is instilled as unexpected beats of the bar are stressed. Following a brief volcanic outburst of brass, some semblance of order is retained at 7:38 with a short interlude of woodwinds. A creeping figure in the low strings enters at 8:12 and leads the musical progression until 10:23. Following another brief interlude, the music proceeds in a series of fragmentary passages of increasing rhythmic drive until Part I crashes to a close at 15:06.

Part II begins quietly with a passage of mysteriously lilting woodwinds, strings and distant brass (15:10-20:06). After a melodically expressive section dominated by the strings, a pounding rhythm is introduced at 22:44, thrust forward by the driving percussion. Another moment of respite ensues after which the climactic passage of the ballet begins at 28:38. In this final scene, the chosen sacrifice dances herself to death, accompanied by thunderous brass and percussion.

Being probably Stravinsky’s best known work, The Rite of Spring has been recorded numerous times. The recording above is performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, chosen for its fine balance of savagery and attention to detail. For a particularly barbaric, if somewhat scruffy, performance, Valery Gergiev’s recording with the Kirov Orchestra is recommended. Stravinsky himself also conducts a brilliant recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, taking the score somewhat faster than most modern performances.

Both of Stravinsky’s other ballets from this period explore similar musical ideas to The Rite of Spring but in a more melodious, late Romantic setting: 1910’s The Firebird is one of Stravinsky’s major pieces and 1911’s Petrushka is awash with rhythmic vitality. Many other composers of Stravinsky’s generation explored the folk traditions of their own countries. In particular, Béla Bartók devoted much of his career to the research of Hungary’s indigenous music, assimilating his findings into his compositions; his cycle of six string quartets is highly recommended.

Artwork: Three Women, Pablo Picasso

by Thomas May

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Tabula Rasa, Arvo Pärt

“I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played.” The musical world of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has long existed in a curious state of tension, balancing the hermit-like aura of the composer himself, and the outstanding commercial success his music has achieved since the 1980s.

In Tallinn during the 50s, Pärt’s subversive serialist experiments attracted the critical eye of the regime. Exhausted by state censorship, Pärt drifted towards writing for Soviet films, but at the same time his personal musical language was undergoing a profound transformation; his music absorbed lessons learned from his study of Franco-Flemish choral music, Gregorian chant and ultimately the sound of the Orthodox Church. Where once his serialism was denounced as decadent, now his new religiosity was in flagrant defiance of state atheism. His music existed in a state of “time and timelessness”, bathed in the sound of fading bells.

Pärt eventually fled the country and settled in Berlin in 1981. But exile was to prove lucrative. The German music label ECM, set up by Manfred Eicher, had for some time focused on championing an austere minimalist aesthetic and its interest in the “New Simplicity” – the term for the 80s wave of spiritual minimalist music emerging from the former Soviet bloc – was inevitable. In 1984 Eicher founded ECM New Series for new composers, with Pärt’s 1977 composition Tabula Rasa as its first imprint.

Why does Pärt’s music continually evoke descriptions soaked in hyperbole? Much of his musical language relies on the simplest of means – silence, the tolling of bells: “The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation [from the Latin for bells]”. 1977’s Tabula Rasa is a blossoming of his new-found style, where kaleidoscopic simplicity and bells are utilised in heightened emotion, both reminiscent of something archaic and yet never victim to Romantic escapism. Whereas early attempts at tonality, such as 1966’s Pro et Contra, were often presented in ironic juxtaposition with atonality, Tabula Rasa represents a fully fledged style. The piece’s orchestration is reminiscent of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke – 2 violins, prepared piano and strings – and was dedicated to the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer. The intensity of woven melodic voices and the stylistic absorption of the late medieval and Russian Orthodoxy produces a cathartic, “cleansing” experience.

But Tabula Rasa’s appeal also relied on something more prosaic. The sparse scalic and triadic figuration treads a fine line between modernist critique and banality. Its retrogressive aspects are buried under its “timeless” religiosity. This brand of spiritual music provided a minimalist oasis for the technological over-load of the 80s economic boom, as well as a triumphalist “healing” for the violence of 20th century music’s history of conflict. And yet we should not forget that the same musical language had its roots back in Estonia as a defiant gesture. Tabula Rasa exists in two states – its stylistic birth under the Soviet regime, and its aesthetic appeal under the West’s late capitalist culture.

Below is a recording of  Tabula Rasa followed by a brief listening guide.

The first movement, ‘Ludus’, opens (0:00) with the solo violins searing through at dual register. Silence follows (0:04). Then an orchestral motif (0:12) gradually emerges, around which the soloists orbit. The music pushes towards a climax, furiously closing on the opening’s chord, now in full orchestra (9:20). The second movement, ‘Silentium’, is announced by prepared piano arpeggiation (9:37), and then again reveals a pattern – an orchestral motif over a descending scale. The solo violins continually circle from above, marked by piano chords. The music fades into a whisper (25:37).

The recording comes from the 1984 ECM recording, with Gidon Kremer, Tatjana Grindenko and Alfred Schnittke as soloists.

1977’s Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten, also on the ECM Tabula Rasa record, is a fine example of Pärt’s ability to put a fleeting musical moment to devastating impact, smeared through with Mahlerian peaks and submerged bells. For the UK’s answer to the “new simplicity”, the music of John Tavener similarly marries a familiar transparent sound with popular success – 1988’s The Protecting Veil is a typical example.

Artwork: Black on Maroon, Mark Rothko

by En Liang Khong

Anahit, Giacinto Scelsi

Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi is one of the most enigmatic and intriguing figures of 20th century music. Having suffered a breakdown following the Second World War, Scelsi began to explore the meditative qualities of sound almost as a form of therapy, sitting for hours at a time at his piano playing no more than a single note. This process of discovery constituted something of an epiphanic juncture in his musical development: Scelsi thereafter abandoned the serialism of his earlier compositions, taking this new appreciation of the intricate subtleties of sound as the starting point for all of his subsequent music. Rather than treating individual sounds as isolated, singular points, Scelsi’s music reimagines each tone as a pulsating, multidimensional entity, vibrating with mystical energy and sonorous depth.

Composed in 1965, Anahit is perhaps the fullest realisation of Scelsi’s ethereal vision: oblique in its esoteric sonic explorations yet generous in its harmonic and textural richness. This music is a slow, kaleidoscopic procession of translucent orchestral colour saturated with mysterious, static tension and shimmering timbres. Like most of Scelsi’s compositions, Anahit is shaded with microtonal intervals (those intervals smaller than a semitone) as the various instrumental voices eerily twist and contort, incrementally sliding away from their respective starting points in mesmeric glissandi. Yet, the effect is never that of brutal dissonance. Instead the musical voices seem to circle each other furtively, occasionally coalescing into strikingly lucid harmonies before drifting apart once more: this music is perpetually expanding and contracting, slipping in and out of focus with intoxicating ambiguity.

Scored for chamber orchestra and solo violin, Anahit neither embraces the traditional form of the concerto nor overtly rejects it, inhabiting an obscure position between narrative progression and complete abstraction: the solo violin acts as the focal point of the piece whilst simultaneously being assimilated into the overarching musical texture. Positioned as the central thread around which all other musical material revolves, the glistening incandescence of the violin serves to anchor the intangibility of the surrounding soundscape, augmenting the evanescent pulsing of the orchestra with its metallic luminosity.

Anahit provides a glimpse at Scelsi’s intense feeling of enlightenment as he uncovered the vast potency of sound, discovering the overwhelming expanse of eternity in a single tone. Epitomising his sincere belief in the mysterious power of music, Scelsi chose to reject the term “composer” altogether, instead characterising himself as a spiritual messenger between worlds, channelling transcendent truth and beauty through the terrestrial medium of sound. Whilst this claim may seem somewhat quaint, it is in the ephemeral and iridescent music of Anahit that Scelsi provides his most compelling evidence.

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

[UPDATE 17/05/2013: The recording below has been removed from YouTube. Another recording can be found here via YouTube. Please note that the timings given below may no longer coincide with the recording.]

Anahit is a piece that rewards immersive listening and to dissect it into isolated events would serve only to reduce its mystique. Yet, a few signposts can be useful in grasping the piece for the first time.

Anahit is divided into three sections: the first (0:00-7:07) and last (8:37-end) are scored for the full orchestra along with the solo violin, acting as a frame for the brief central section (7:07-8:37) which is scored for solo violin alone. The gliding motion of the first section is briefly interrupted at 4:16-5:00, and again at 5:58-7:00, as interjections from the woodwind and brass become increasingly volatile. Following the spacious interlude of the second section, the third passage brings the piece to a close with the pulsing of the orchestra supporting strained statements from the violin; as the music draws to a close the violin reaches out for (and finally achieves) the high G towards which the piece has been striving throughout its duration.

The recording above is conducted by Jürg Wyttenbach with violin soloist Carmen Fournier, available on Accord’s essential three disc set of Scelsi’s orchestral works. Another fine recording is available on the Kairos label, conducted by Hans Zender, but the Accord set is more comprehensive.

All of Scelsi’s orchestral works inhabit similar sound-worlds to that of Anahit: the mystical Uaxuctum, which tells the story of the demise of an ancient civilisation of Central America, is particularly engaging. Scelsi’s works on a smaller scale can be equally rewarding: the shimmering Ohoi for strings and the solo cello work Trilogy come highly recommended. Fellow Italian composer Luigi Nono’s later work shares much with Scelsi’s music in its contemplative nature: his epic 1985 piece Prometeo is essential listening.

Artwork: Black Square, Kazimir Malevich

by Thomas May

String Quartet No. 8, Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich is rare in the canon of the greats in that he is associated almost as much with politics as with his art. By 1960, having previously been denounced twice by Stalin’s regime for writing unpatriotic music, he was living in obscurity and was blackmailed into becoming a shackled “artist” producing watered-down, placatory works for the Party. Coupled with the death of his first wife and his increasingly suicidal state, the nihilistic tone of the work comes as little surprise.

It was in his chamber music, not his symphonies, that Shostakovich left his most heartfelt and personal musical testimonies and which therefore provide the real key to understanding the man. As one of the works written “for the desk drawer”, String Quartet No. 8 wears its heart on its sleeve, containing no empty sentimentalism like those found in the pages of his public works. Composed in only three days while the composer was visiting the ruined city of Dresden, the work almost lacks the energy to venture out of its own bleak landscape.

Almost every work of his is rich in self-quotation and coded messages. In a characteristically pessimistic move, Shostakovich wrote the work as a kind of musical autobiography, since the authorities had guaranteed that there would be no chance of anyone else being able to publish one. He quotes his own symphonies and chamber music as well as Russian folk tunes, creating a web of allusions which supports several conflicting readings, ranging from a memorial to the victims of fascism to an artist’s suicide note. In a poignant but not isolated gesture, all five movements are ceaselessly imprinted with the motif D – E flat – C – B (or, in the German nomenclature, D – S – C – H): a musical spelling of his own initials.

Along with the overriding tone of loss approaching insanity comes a note of retrospection. The self-conscious modeling of the work on the anguished late quartets of Beethoven adds a historical dimension to Shostakovich’s desperate attempt to be remembered as a great composer, while his labyrinthine narratives of polyphonic writing set the backward-looking musical techniques in an eerily dislocated context. His writing is broadly tonal, but ventures schizophrenically into more acerbic, dissonant territory, especially in the frenzied middle movements. The quartet begins and ends in a minor mode, drained of energy, which is intermittently undermined by the full range of the chromatic scale, contributing to the work’s uniquely unsettling emptiness. The work is incredibly compact and all five movements blend into each other, transforming the conventional movement structure into a dramatic stream of consciousness.

The ambiguity of meaning, coupled with the deep sense of isolation and regret, means that this music, resonating with bitter universal experience, transcends individual suffering to address all of human despair.

Below is a recording of String Quartet No. 8, accompanied by a brief listening guide.

The first movement opens with the four instruments stating the DSCH motif in a slow, breathless canon, before each retreats to the background, which itself becomes riddled with outbursts (0:36). The first point of any definition comes at the cadence at 0:50, before fading back into obscurity with a pensive, winding violin monody over a drone in the cello and viola; this itself is given a mournful, lamenting quality by the addition of a second violin at 1:59. At 3:03, hints of brightness melt back into dissonance in the same veiled texture as the opening, before the beginning is restated. A single note is taken up at 4:29 and we are propelled into the frenetic second movement, a march taken at a ridiculous pace, evoking the sound of anti-aircraft fire (spelt in an inversion of the composer’s name) at 4:47. At 5:26 a buildup strained to breaking point explodes into a huge, quasi-orchestral rendition of a Jewish Folk tune, quoted from the composer’s Piano Trio No. 2. The movement continues with relentless drive, exacerbating all previous sections, before unexpectedly cutting off.

The third movement is a parody of a waltz, punctuated by ill-timed silences (0:14). The instruments mock the simplicity of the harmonic structure of the dance with their own, grotesque version (0:48), breaking down into chaos before the viola confidently asserts its own march rhythm at 1:26. At 1:46 the violin and cello steal each other’s roles, with the former quoting the composer’s 1st Cello Concerto, before the latter plays an ethereal melody that should belong to the violin. At 2:33, the waltzing viola is forced to provide its own accompaniment, in a cruel transformation of the opening, before an unexpected recitative.

The fourth movement is defined by savagery, as the journey reaches its most desolate point. At 0:41 the viola and cello quote the revolutionary song ‘Tormented by Grievous Bondage’ in an intensely sinister manner. At 1:49 the two violins recall the moment of tenderness from the first movement, like two people comforting each other in adversity. A triumphalist finale would be misplaced in the midst of such suffering, so what we get instead at 4:47, realised with more agonising dissonances, is a disappearance back into the barren landscape of the first movement.

The above recording is by the Emerson Quartet whose magisterial cycle of the complete quartets is among the very finest. For a taste of genuine Soviet misery try the St Petersburg Quartet’s reading, available on DDD.

Shostakovich’s 5th and 7th Symphonies represent more public displays of defiance, showcased in a punchy, neo-Mahlerian symphonic style. Prokofiev’s caustic ‘War’ Sonatas for Piano (Nos. 6, 7 & 8) provide a similarly personal insight into political resistance.

Artwork: Babi Yar, Shalom Goldberg

by Joel Sandelson