Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Month: October, 2012

Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Béla Bartók

Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle ushered in a new period of psychological realism, darkness, and economy of material in his music. Premiered in 1937, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was an incredibly compelling step forward in transferring these forces into the abstract realm. An Expressionist engagement with the drama of oppositions meets with a feeling of black comedy to create a highly visceral experience, married with masterful technical achievement.

This extraordinary work adds to Bartók’s assimilation of folk traditions of his native Hungary a sophisticated dialectic between ancient and modern. The movements each caricature a different form whilst adapting them to the precise, shadowy vision of the music. He does not fully embrace these archaic forms but chooses certain features from a distance, with the result of creating 20th century metaphors for the fugue, sonata and concerto, rather than wholeheartedly continuing their tradition.

Bartók’s worldview derived from a deep love of nature, and to an extent, a suspicion of man. This is prevalent in the poignantly restrained third movement, one of his finest examples of “night music”, marked by the interruption of “human” emotionalism of the opening viola theme into music otherwise expressive of purely natural beauty. The rustic Hungarian song and dance of the finale, heightened by Bartók’s exuberant tonal language, feels like the swansong of an old Eastern Europe before it was to be buried two years later.

The two antiphonal string orchestras on either side of the stage echo the Baroque concerto grosso, creating a spatially fascinating interplay of sonorities which Bartók exploits to great effect, employing dense contrapuntal writing. This represents a natural continuation of his blocky, clearly delineated scoring in his earlier orchestral music. The string choirs lie at the emotional centre of the piece, but his addition of the percussion is a perfect example of his use of orchestral colour to shade in the depth of the music at certain moments.

The interval of a tritone (such as C – F sharp) represented the “devil in music” in the Baroque and dark, elemental powers in late Romantic music. Bartók takes advantage of the associations of this interval (like everything else in the piece, derived from the opening motivic cell) but without a hint of cliché or irony; it is woven into its richly evocative yet totally unpretentious fabric. In the same way, the piece represents the culmination of Bartók’s tonally centric writing (certain individual notes act as “pitch centres”) but it is never in a key, so that the structural tension of long-range tonality is present like a shadow throughout without restricting itself to any sort of triad-based harmony. Disparate approaches are made harmonious in this most tightly unified of all works.

Stanley Kubrick’s famous use of the piece in The Shining is a testament to its strange power to enrapture coupled with an unsettling feeling of déjà vu. What makes it remarkable is its totally abstract, universal passion expressed through a rigorously intellectual concentration of thought.

Below is a recording of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta accompanied by a brief listening guide.

The first movement is an enormous fugue, consisting of a completely unbroken stream of notes producing a compelling, hypnotic power, seemingly infinite in its potential to expand and yet governed by a highly logical system. Starting around the pitch A, it reaches its ensnaring climax at 5:22 (at E flat, a tritone away). The fugue subject proves so powerful that it overflows into every corner of the rest of the piece. The breathless return of the opening is transformed by the cold glitter of the celesta at 7:25. However homogeneous it may be, the movement sets the tone for the whole work, embodying an intense engagement with its own material qualified by a frightened sense of distance.

The second, a boisterous dance movement, is cast in an expanded sonata form, with the opening flourishes oddly contradicted by a hushed, mathematical development at 3:15. The return to the movement’s opening at 5:21 is made the victim of a crude metrical shift enforced by timpani.

The deeply felt yet icy third movement is at the heart of the work. The xylophone’s accelerating then slowing pulse at the opening is a microcosm for the whole movement – it is itself a palindrome, summarizing the ABCDCBA arch-like structure of the movement, as well as being the musical noise of a cricket, introducing the theme of nature which Bartók proceeds to explore. 4:00 is coldly expressive of this natural world, not depending solely on pitch for its effect, and 5:52 presents an uneasy synthesis of the invading, narrative-driven theme and the mystical, nocturnal world of the rest of the movement.

The finale seems to resolve the human problems of its antecedent, embodied in part by a more consonant reworking of the opening motto at 3:22. The movement gathers up the melodic threads of the work and gives them a new depth of meaning with its unbrookable onward flow. Moments such as 5:45 cast doubt on the overriding tone of the movement, but the riotous ending makes it seem like a totally natural outcome of the darkness that it follows.

This clean, precise recording comes from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Considering its dependence on three-dimensional perception for its spatial impact, live performance will always be preferable. However, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s reading with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, available on Sony, is particularly fine.

For an insight into Bartók’s incredible sense of proportion, the Fourth String Quartet is a particularly astonishing example, while the grandeur of the Concerto for Orchestra shows his exploration of scoring techniques adumbrated in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Many works of the surprisingly contemporaneous Ralph Vaughan Williams provide a damper, more English perspective on folk music.

Artwork: Fighting Forms, Franz Marc

by Joel Sandelson

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Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass

Marc Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2013 collection for Louis Vuitton was unveiled at Paris Fashion Week earlier this month. Models descended escalators in pairs onto a yellow and white floor, tiled in the company’s trademark Damier check. The clothing camouflaged with this staging, and projected the same values: retro/nostalgia, luxury, excess, kitsch, cleanness of line, “minimalism”. Background and foreground, scenery and actor, became part of the same network. Playing over the speakers for the duration of the show was ‘Knee Play 5’, the final movement of Einstein on the Beach (1975-76) by Philip Glass. The runway show could well have been a radical new staging of the opera in this, the year of the composer’s 75th birthday.

Glass composed the music for Einstein to a series of storyboards by director Robert Wilson, and set texts by Samuel M Johnson, Lucinda Childs and Christopher Knowles, an autistic poet just seventeen at the time. It is non-narrative in tone, instead outlining a metaphorical “portrait” of Albert Einstein. The work is five hours long with no interval. Instead, the audience is permitted to enter and exit as they please. Glass himself claims never to have seen the whole work in one sitting.

It was premièred in July, 1976, at Avignon, before touring Europe. Back in New York, Glass hired the Metropolitan Opera House in downtime with private money and, despite playing to two sell-out audiences, ended up heavily in debt, doing odd jobs to reimburse his backers. Glass worked a plumbing job at the SoHo home of art critic Robert Hughes in the immediate aftermath of Einstein’s US debut: “My God, you’re Philip Glass…What are you doing here?” “I’m installing your dishwasher.” “But you’re an artist.” “I’m an artist, but sometimes I am a plumber as well.”

Wags would have it that Glass remains a plumber – plumbing the depths of bad taste – but I disagree. Einstein in particular is a masterpiece, despite, or perhaps because of, its obvious rootedness to time and place (see South Park for a satire of Glass’ New York urbanity and the hip, non-narrative forms of his “portrait operas”).

Einstein can be read as part of a process of “becoming” in a career distinguished by continuity and flux in equal measures, rather than discrete periods or phases. The centrality of the violin (Albert Einstein was himself an amateur violinist) also recalls Strung Out (1967-68), a radically minimalist work of Glass’ youth. The focus on rhythm, repetition, and amplified sound (all hallmarks of minimalist music) does not prevent a lyrical, melodic quality shining through. Comprised of  electric keyboards, woodwind (including saxophones), and wordless voices, the Philip Glass Ensemble plays music ranging from ominous, slow-motion drones, to fierce, propulsive arpeggios, but the group always moves as one: more direct and less contrapuntally layered than the music of Glass’ contemporary Steve Reich. Einstein on the Beach, like Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians which emerged from the same cultural milieu, is a defining work of “minimalism”, but its ambitious scope and emotional range perhaps indicate the laziness of the term.

Below are clips (both audio and visual) from Einstein on the Beach, accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Einstein becomes something else when separated from its visuals, but that “something” remains important in the context of Glass’s oeuvre, interesting in its own right.

Act 1

Knee Play 1: This emerges, rather than “starts”, two figures on stage reciting fragments of text. An organ soon joins. After just a minute (in this recording), a famous game of Numberwang begins in earnest.

Train 1: Rapid-fire number-chanting and a fierce synth/sax ostinato in additive meters. The tempo has picked up, but the rate of change remains impossibly slow. A cut-out steam train entering from the side of the stage visually represents this. My favourite Glass moment is at 6:30, when the harmony is violently tossed away from and back towards its centre.

Trial 1: In three parts. ‘Entrance’, ‘Mr Bojangles’, ‘All Men are Equal’. ‘Entrance’ is austere, sang as a court scene is set. In ‘Mr Bojangles’, an abstract Christopher Knowles text naming pop culture figures is recited over a violin figure (played on stage by “Einstein”), and a two-note male chorus motif. ‘All Men are Equal’ is a surreal feminist tale about a women’s meeting in Kalamazoo.

Knee Play 2: Violin feature for “Einstein”. Joined by two women speaking over each other. Striking phrases include “these are the days, my friends”, “we get some wind for the sail boat” and “it could be very fresh and clean”.

Act 2

Dance 1: Motorik organ, wordless vocals, ballet dancing.

Night Train: A lovers’ duet, with solfège and numbers for lyrics. The lovers aboard a train are at times part of the ensemble, at others soaring atop it.

Knee Play 3: A capella number-chanting. Starts furiously and grows more stately.

Act 3

Trial 2 (Prison): Another courtroom scene, again in three parts: ‘Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket’, ‘Ensemble’ (no clip above), ‘I Feel the Earth Move’.

After 1:55 of ‘Entrance’-reprising scene setting, a female voice enters with the most famous speech of the opera:

I was in this prematurely air-conditioned super market / and there were all these aisles / and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy / that had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them. / They were red and yellow and blue. / I wasn’t tempted to buy one / but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach.

Repeats incessantly, before a ferocious riff suddenly takes over (12:06) and carries on into the Ensemble section. ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ is hushed text over a plaintive saxophone melody and organ drone.

Dance 2: Oscillates between two meters. Violin, keyboard, wordless vocals, ballet dancers.

Knee Play 4: Ascending ‘Do-re-mi-fa-so’ from the male chorus, with ‘Einstein’ at the violin. Changes from furious to melancholic at 1:28. The violin introduces one of the most striking motifs of the entire work at 1:51; the melody is ornamented and performed rubato in total contrast to almost everything that surrounds it.

Act 4

(from 8:20) Building: A freely improvised sax solo, not present on any recording, but there more often than not in performance, dominates the scene. This, more than anything else, ensures Einstein remains divisive, even transgressive, despite much of its content and style otherwise being accepted and assimilated into the mainstream.

Bed: Aria for soprano voice and organ.

Spaceship: My favourite Glass motif explored for an entire movement. The piece explodes into life at 1:11 and the bass takes on a life of its own at 2:14. The unison cadenza at 4:31 is ridiculous and sounds like nothing else by Glass. The ensemble reenters at 8:32 and the bassline goes into hyperdrive at 10:43, interstellar space at 11:57.

Knee Play 5: The numbers from Knee 1 reprised, a violin feature at 3:57, and a slightly inane Samuel M Johnson text about two lovers on a park bench. This functions, as the narrator says, as a “soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day, to set at rest our troubled minds, and put at ease our ruffled spirits.” Very possibly a joke after five hours of abstract (but highly affective) opera.

The two best recordings of Einstein are on Nonesuch (2012) and Sony (2012). Both are performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble, under Michael Riesman. No audio-visual recording is available, nor ever will be unless Glass/Wilson drop their opposition.

Knowledge of the music of Glass’s contemporaries (Steve Reich), his predecessors (Terry Riley, La Monte Young), and his successors (the Bang on a Can collective, and Nico Muhly) can only add to an appreciation of Glass’s own work.

Artwork: ‘Les Deux Plateaux’/‘Les colonnes de Buren’, Daniel Buren

by Thom Hosken

Les espaces acoustiques, Gérard Grisey

Gérard Grisey’s manifesto as a composer was as unassuming as it was transformative: “music is made with sounds, not with notes.” Whilst this simple statement may initially appear somewhat aphoristic, Grisey’s observation represents a subtle, yet pertinent, repositioning of compositional approach. It was from this starting point that the French composer began to mine the depths of texture and harmony contained within individual sounds. In developing what is now termed “spectral music”, Grisey created an innovative, yet strikingly lucid and accessible, compositional style, simultaneously eschewing the occasionally esoteric tendencies of the European avant-garde as well as minimalism’s increasingly post-modern nature.

Grisey’s largest ever undertaking, Les espaces acoustiques was composed sporadically in the period from 1974 to 1985 and remains perhaps the fullest realisation of his musical vision. In composing the piece Grisey undertook detailed analyses of sound spectra. These are the unique combinations of frequencies that manifest themselves as timbre, accounting for the distinction between, for example, a middle-C played on a piano and the same note played on a violin. Following this process of analysis, Grisey was able to mimic closely various sounds using groups of instruments, a technique that he called “instrumental synthesis”. A prominent example of the technique occurs at the opening of Les espaces acoustiques’s third movement ‘Partiels’; a low E on the trombone is followed by a collection of woodwinds and strings playing the frequencies from the sound’s spectrum, imitating the colour and timbre of the brass instrument in a shivering halo of sound.

During this passage, Grisey prises apart the components of the initial sound, reconstructing the trombone’s timbre in front of our ears in a stunning aural illusion, forming a furtive echo at once both bleached and iridescent. Whilst seemingly little more than a conjuring trick, this passage serves to reveal the wealth of subtle nuance hidden within a single sound. In this sense, Les espaces acoustiques reaches far beyond the superficialities of its compositional ingenuity: this piece opens up new modes of aural perception, exposing the beautiful multidimensionality constituting even the most mundane of sonic events.

Les espaces acoustiques hovers uneasily between the consonant and the dissonant, the placid and the volatile. Through his spectral analyses, Grisey uncovered the dramatic tensions at the centre of apparently stable sounds, drawing out the natural dissonances that lie buried within. As such, this music is at once sensuous and uncertain; the static mass of luminous colours and textures is undercut by a constant threat of rupture as Grisey proceeds to tear apart the very fabric of the soundscape. Part scientific analysis, part mystical exploration of aural sensuality, Les espaces acoustiques simultaneously deconstructs conceptions of the nature of music whilst remaining firmly rooted in the physical, vibrational qualities of sound itself.

Below is a recording of Les espaces acoustiques accompanied by a brief listening guide.

[UPDATE 05/01/2013: The recording below has been removed from YouTube. Another recording can be found here via Spotify. Please note that this is a different recording so the timings below will no longer correspond exactly with the performance.]

Les espaces acoustiques proceeds in six movements with the ensemble increasing in size as the piece progresses.

‘Prologue’ opens the piece in a rather austere manner. A sparse solo for viola, this movement hints at the timbral richness of the remainder of the piece as the instrument traverses a variety of sonorities.

‘Periodes’ is scored for seven instruments: flute, clarinet, trombone, violin, viola, cello and double bass. In the opening passage, the static, pulsating mass of sound occasionally threatens to erupt as the rasping trombone cuts through the soundscape. Listen out for the lilting series of arpeggios beginning at 3:16 and the intense succession of chords from 7:03-8:45.

‘Partiels’ opens with the piece’s most prominent use of instrumental synthesis (0:00-3:40): the timbre of the low brass is imitated by various groups of instruments. Scored for 18 instruments, this movement explores a wide variety of textures; particularly striking is the throbbing cloud of sound at 12:28-15:03, gradually changing in colouration and intensity as different instruments enter and leave.

‘Modulations’ is scored for an orchestra. From 8:10 to 11:05, high strings and pitched percussion cloak the music in a shimmering metallic gauze.

The size of the orchestra increases for ‘Transitoires’. The penultimate movement acts as the culmination of the piece, traversing a kaleidoscopic array of luminous textures. The central section from 4:41 to 9:44 recalls the music from the opening of ‘Partiels’. In a magical passage, the delicate, fragmentary strings which emerge from the gloom at 11:00 are joined by distant muted brass at 12:02.

‘Epilogue’ opens with a solo viola alluding to the ‘Prologue’ before ushering in the full orchestra, this time augmented by four solo horns. The movement forms an enigmatic conclusion to Les espaces acoustiques, the bleached colours of the orchestra punctuated by the jarring sonorities of the horns.

The fine performance above is conducted by Pierre-Andre Valade and available on the Accord record label.

Grisey’s final completed work, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (1998), is considered by some to be his crowning achievement and would make for a good entry point for further exploration of his music. Fellow French composer Tristan Murail is another significant proponent of spectral music; his pieces Gondwana (1980) and Désintégrations (1982) both come highly recommended.

Artwork: Cage 1, Gerhard Richter

by Thomas May

Momente, Karlheinz Stockhausen

“He who kisses the Joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.” William Blake’s aphorism was in Stockhausen’s mind when writing Momente from 1962-69, a work which is at the forefront of one of the most notoriously radical oeuvres of all time – and one which has become a byword in popular culture for the laughably avant-garde. Indeed, with Momente, Stockhausen began to build the violently hostile reaction to his work into the music itself; much of the piece’s dramatic effect derives from the suggestion of open confrontation between composer and his public detractors.

The concept of “moment-form” on which the work is modelled is best described as consisting of something followed by a completely different thing. Momente is designed to explore the “feeling” rather than the “thinking” aspects of music, in contrast to the composer’s earlier works, which were based on mathematical formulae. This is not to say, however, that it resorts to artistic debasement – it rather achieves an eerily familiar feeling through new means. The successive “moments” are not even delineated by harmonic or rhythmic change but rather by timbre and colour, which are made to function structurally. The four choirs not only sing but also laugh, whisper, murmur, speak, exhale, and play strange musical instruments, including drinks cans and Volkswagen spanners (which kept disappearing leading up to the premiere, since most of the chorus drove Volkswagens). This exploration of previously uncharted musical waters means it would be misleading to call Momente “atonal”, since its approach to harmony is as if tonality had never existed.

The new ideal of form explored in Momente implores us to lose ourselves in each little island of sound without worrying about large-scale repetition. The libretto is a surrealist collage of Biblical passages, literary quotations, fairy tales, letters to the composer, and nonsense, which all explore the subject of love in a linguistic tapestry of sensory pleasure rather than contribute to any linear narrative. Stockhausen’s delicate structure of inter-“moment” associations answers a need to break free from what he saw as an illusory causality in music, an approach not worlds away from the “total serialism” of Boulez and Babbitt. Both give the impression of a higher order controlling the musical narrative as opposed to the traditional cumulative processes.

Most of Stockhausen’s music seems to be a direct comment on the musical condition itself, in that he aims consistently at metaphysical questions embodied by music’s temporal dimension. One of the most striking aspects of Momente is that it sounds like an opera in its heartfelt insistence and dramatic contrasts, but does not depend on chronological sequence for its effect. Indeed, in its amorphous mix of genres it attacks the passivity induced by conventional opera, and rebels against the concept of a unified and integrated “work”. In this light it reveals itself as a musical corollary to its clear literary analogues, which include the stream-of-consciousness novel and the Theatre of the Absurd, thus expressing not universal truths, but rather the overriding postwar sentiment of man’s tragic dislocation and alienation.

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

Considering its emphasis on visceral sonic impact, Momente is best suited to immersive listening. However, several “moments” are worth pointing out as an introduction.

The structure is built around “K”, “M” and “D” (Klang, Melodie, Dauer – Sound, Melody, Length) moments, which orientate the music towards timbre, melody and polyphony respectively. Broadly speaking, “K” music tends to resolve, “M” music to evolve, and “D” music to sustain.

The use of a solo soprano, shielded from the abrasive choirs surrounding her by electronic organs and percussion, indicates that Stockhausen has something personal and subjective to divulge. This dichotomy is noticeable from 4:58 to 8:15, interspersing the solo’s ravings with pillars of assertive, masculine, Gamelan-like music in the choirs, percussion and brass.

The passage at around 14:55 is an interesting “KM” moment, mixing together the salient features of both categories, including soprano solo and male chorus, in an enigmatic and meditative coalescence of sound.

31:10 is a clear “D” moment – female voices and otherworldly electronic organs eventually drop out into a bottomless void before an “MD” section, which mixes pitches and noises equally.

In spite of the work’s claims to anti-causality, the ending (55:41–) at first seems to transcend its antecedents, at least in terms of sheer volume, before disappearing into ephemerality. Momente ultimately becomes a victim of its own cliché.

This authoritative recording comes from the Cologne Radio Broadcasting Choir conducted by the composer. Stockhausen has conducted (or heavily assisted in) every subsequent recording, meaning that the aleatoric nature of the work has been somewhat limited in its interpretational scope. The needed variation has rather come from the several versions of the score available.

Stockhausen’s huge catalogue of 370 individual works can seem very daunting. The momentous Gruppen of 1957 for three orchestras is worth exploring, as is his most celebrated foray into electronic music, Kontakte. 

Artwork: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí

by Joel Sandelson